Selected Items from the Extropianism FAQ  

This page includes some items from the old "Extropy Institute" website (www.extropy.org) that are of particular interest to me.

What is an extropian?
How does "extropy" relate to "entropy"?
What do "transhuman" and "posthuman" mean?
4. What does "Best do it so!" stand for?
How does "evolution" distinguish traditional political orientations from extropianism?
What books describe the "basics" of extropian thought?
14. What is uploading?
15. What is nanotechnology? When will it be available?
16. What is agoric computing?
17. What is E-Prime?
18. What do extropians think of cryonics/biostasis?
24. What is the Singularity?
25. When will the Singularity occur?

The initials of the author of the answer to each question can be found in parentheses at the end of each answer.

[ch] Chris Hibbert

[de] Dani Eder

[dV/dt] David Krieger, www.fqa.com/~dave

[ewf] Eric Watt Forste (Arkuat), arkuat (at) pobox.com

[fcp] Freeman Craig Presson, http://www.nuance.com/~fcp/html_index.html

[fn] Steve Witham (FutureNerd)

[mm] Max More more (at) extropy.org

[pcm] Peter C. McCluskey, http://www.rahul.net:80/pcm/

[rpm] Robert Munafo


What is an extropian?

According to Eric Watt Forste,

Extropians tend to advocate technologies that seem a little weird to many nonextropians, or technological solutions to problems that many people don't even think of as problems. Just a few examples are "space development", "cryonics", "life extension", "memetics", "artificial intelligence", and "smart drugs".

The name is related to the magazine Extropy, created by Max More and Tom Morrow in 1988. Many people found the ideas in the magazine agreed well with their own, and had not had a name up to that point.

Forste also cites correlation between self-identification as "extropian" and each of the following qualities and/or self-identities:

courageous
critical
curious
disagreeing with another self-identified "extropian" on at least one point
explorer
neophile
not relying on authorities as the final word
optimist
questioning and experimenting
taking responsibility for one's own actions and explorations
wanting a better life, growth, improvement, increase, and understanding
admiring the above traits in others

He also humorously cites the "most important" quality of all, a dogmatic opposition to dogmatism.


How does "extropy" relate to "entropy"?

Entropy is a precisely-defined phenomenon in thermodynamics which has been used as a metaphor in a great variety of less rigorous contexts.

Max More has suggested the following definition for "extropy":

A measure of intelligence, information, energy, vitality, experience, diversity, opportunity, and growth.

This definition invokes the opposite of most of the qualities that are commonly referred to metaphorically by the word "entropy".

Although most believe in the truth of the assertion, "entropy alwys increases", few understand the limits of its application. Biological evolution is a good example of an increase in order driven by a more widespread increase in disorder.


What do "transhuman" and "posthuman" mean?

transhuman is related to transhumanism, which is a philosophy of moving from the "human" present condition to a "pusthuman" future. This usually involves a core belief in a continued and accelerated evolution of life, usually focusing on intelligence and technology. There is also usually a core belief in the importance of proactive effort to further such results. This requires open-mindedness, optimism, affinity with new technology, and most of the other qualities cited above.

posthuman is used to describe any of a wide variety of notional future life-forms that will have evolved from present-day humans. It can include any combination of enhanced abilities in physical, emotional, mental, intellectual and spiritual qualities. In general, the more of these dimensions are incorporated, the more extreme the improvements are, and the less resemblance the resulting posthuman has to historical humans, the more "extropian" it is.

By (rpm), based on (mm)'s outline.


What does "Best do it so!" stand for?

"Best do it so!" is an mnemonic acronym for the extropian principles: Boundless Expansion, Self-Transformation, Dynamic Optimism, Intelligent Technology, and Spontaneous Order.

I also see it as an allusion to the Masonic expression so mote it be

(ewf) and (rpm)


How does "evolution" distinguish traditional political orientations from extropianism?

Evolution works through a process of variation and selection: the generation of new and different variations on something, and the elimination of the variations that don't work. Variation can be either random (as in biological evolution) or by design (as in memetic or technological evolution).

Conservatives and liberals both dislike evolution: Conservatives despise variation: diversity of cultures, races, sexual identities, or ideas. Liberals (in the modern, rather than classical, sense) don't like selection — they demand equality of outcome (as opposed to equality of opportunity), and insist that no person or idea be allowed to fail.

The Extropian philosophy appreciates evolution. Extropians cherish diversity and welcome novelty. The libertarian orientation of most extropians results in a "live and let live" attitude, so long as the other person doesn't initiate the threat of force against us. However, extropians recognize that selection must be allowed to take place for progress to occur. Enforced equality of outcome leads to stagnation and stasis. [...]

Adapted by (rpm) from (dV/dt)'s answer to a narrower question.


What books describe the "basics" of extropian thought?

These ten books cover it pretty well:

Paul M. Churchland, Matter and Consciousness Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene Eric Drexler, Engines of Creation David Friedman, The Machinery of Freedom (2nd Ed.) Hans Moravec, Mind Children Ed Regis, Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition Julian Simon, The Ultimate Resource Robert Anton Wilson, Prometheus Rising Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (fiction) Marc Stiegler, The Gentle Seduction (fiction)

From (ewf)'s answer to a distantly related question.


What is uploading?

If one rejects spiritualism, it seems consistent with all available evidence to assert that consciousness is caused by the activity of the nervous system. To the best knowledge of today's neuroscience community, the elements of memory, identity, belief, desire, and self-awareness are all encoded in the synaptic interconnection of neurons. The evidence for this is beyond the scope of this FAQ: for example, rat brains are observed to grow new synapses within minutes of learning a new maze. The human mind appears to be an emergent phenomenon of the physical interconnection of neurons by synapses and the process of firing that takes place in that network of neurons.

If nanotechnology, as popularly conceived, becomes available, it will provide (1) vastly improved computers, and (2) non-destructive tools for the analysis of fine-grained structures like the human nervous system. With these tools, it should be feasible to study the neural network of a human being with sufficient precision to be able to model it numerically... if necessary, by modeling the activity of each individual neuron. Various researchers (most prominently, Hans Moravec of Carnegie-Mellon University) have proposed that a computer model of a human nervous system, able to modify itself in the same way that a brain grows new synapses in response to learning, should be an operational replica of the brain being modeled — it should express the same personality and identity as the original meat brain.

Furthermore, by gradually replacing the neurons of the brain with nanocomputers modeling individual neurons, it should be possible to gradually shade over from meat brain to machine brain in situ — without a discontinuity of consciousness or the generation of a duplicate. This latter process has been given the name "uploading" in extropian literature — after the analogous process in computer networks, of transferring a file from one computer to a more capacious one.

The alternative term "downloading" has been used in the past, but "downloading" implies that the new machine hardware is less capacious than the original biological brain. It seems unlikely, however, that anyone would willingly transfer their consciousness into less capable hardware, however; most extropians who consider uploading likely prefer the notion of exploiting the extensibility and malleability of computational neural networks to expand and accelerate their mental processing after transfer, hence "uploading" rather than "downloading". The speed of nanocomputers should enable uploaded minds to function at hundreds to thousands of times the speed of a meat brain.

For more on uploading, see Mind Children by Hans Moravec, or recent articles by Ralph Merkle and Dave Ross in Extropy #9 and 11.

(dV/dt)


What is nanotechnology? When will it be available?

The lower limit on the precision of manufacturing technology appears to be at the atomic level. As Richard Feynman pointed out in his 1959 address, "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom," there appears to be no physical reason why we can't eventually design and build machines that are atomically precise. We already have the capability to manipulate individual atoms under certain special conditions; in 1992, an atomic-force micrograph of the letters "IBM", spelled out in individual xenon atoms on a nickel crystal, made headlines. The capability of building useful machines at that resolution begins to seem realistic.

In his book Nanosystems, K. Eric Drexler examines the possible modes of failure for such machinery (thermal noise, quantum uncertainties, etc.) and shows that none of them present a meaningful barrier to developing a working molecular nanotechnology. We already have an existence proof: biology itself runs on molecular machines. We can see that molecular machinery can store light energy in the form of sugar, build immense structures like redwood trees and blue whales, reproduce itself (in as little as fifteen minutes, in the case of some bacteria), and conduct complex and subtle chemical transformations (as, for example, in the human liver).

What would the ability to build atomically precise machines mean? Drexler's books Engines of Creation and Unbounding the Future (the latter co-authored by Chris Peterson and Gayle Pergamit) explore these possibilities in depth. Among them:

Computers millions of times more dense and fast than today — so small that millions of them would fit in the same space as one of today's desktop machines, and run at mega-MIPS speeds

Robots with the computing power of today's mainframes, yet small enough to enter individual cells and repair proteins and DNA — leading to an end to aging and disease, and the revival of persons in cryonic suspension

Desktop factories that can build anything it is physically possible to build — including copies of themselves, in hours — leading to unprecedented wealth and resources

Perfect recycling, thanks to the capability to disassemble anything to its component atoms for re-assembly into useful forms

When will such capabilities become reality? If current trends continue — if there are no world wars or enormous economic upheavals — these new technologies could become available in as little as ten years (though my personal guess is more like 20 or 25 years). Tim May has pointed out that the major barrier to the development of a working nanotechnology is finding profitable uses for the intermediate enabling technologies, generating revenues to fund the next step along the development path. When such "oases of profitability" are identified, then it will make sense for investors to fund the research to develop full molecular nanotechnology.

In the meantime, government funding of nanotech-oriented research continues. The Japanese technological bureau MITI is funding nanotech development efforts today to the tune of millions of dollars per year. The United States government is lagging, though policy-makers are beginning to get the message. University research projects exist at Rice, CalTech, and UC Davis, among other institutions.

For more information on nanotechnology, see the books cited above, proceedings of nanotechnology conferences (available from MIT Press), the journal Nanotechnology, the USENET newsgroup sci.nanotech, and the sci.nanotech Web page.

(dV/dt)


What is agoric computing?

Most computer resources (CPU time, disk space, communication lines) are allocated by simple, crude algorithms such as first come, first serve. This leads to waste (disks filling up due to a few careless users, CPU-intensive programs delayed while many nodes spend much of their time waiting for keystrokes). These top-down-designed software systems resemble centrally planned economies, and like central economic planning, they work on a small scale, but begin to break down on a larger scale. Agoric computing aims to improve on this by introducing pricing mechanisms and free-market style trading between software objects. Initially this is likely to involve direct decisions by end users about how badly they need resources; eventually many software objects should use this market to subcontract tasks in place of what is now a fixed subroutine call. Ecology of Computation, edited by B. A. Huberman, Elsevier Science Publishers (1988), contains several papers on this subject (the two by Mark Miller and Eric Drexler are the most important). There is also a mailing list (with hardly any volume); to subscribe, send mail to agorics-request (at) netcom.com. At one time there was also a company, Agorics, Inc.(at www.agorics.com/~agorics) that was implementing these ideas.

(pcm), (rpm)


What is E-Prime?

E-Prime is English without the verb "to be" (is, are, was); more specifically, without the "is of identity" ("John is a liar; Linda is a lawyer; Edgar is stupid."). E-Prime emerges from the tradition of General Semantics. The reason for E-Prime is that the "is of identity" connotes an eternal Platonic essence possessed by the thing that is said to "be" something. The "is of identity" tends to blind both the speaker and the audience to many important characteristics about the relationship between the person being described and the quality or category being assigned to them. "Joe is a racist": "Racism" is not a measurable quantity of an object like mass or momentum; there is no "racism meter" we can point to a person that will detect whether Joe has the "essence" of a "racist" in him. "Racist" is a name we give to an object based on our observations of emergent phenomena like behavior; but the assignment of the label is in our heads, not in physical reality. E-Prime, by restricting the use of the "is of identity," makes explicit the fact that these are statements about the state of our nervous system, not about the outside world. E-Prime confines itself to observations and operational statements like "Joe frequently makes statements that sound racist to me" or even "I heard Joe say Angelo is a dirty wop."

Examples of English sentences translated into E-Prime:

ENGLISH: Marty is an asshole.
E-PRIME: Marty frequently says things that make me angry.

ENGLISH: Religious fanatics like David Koresh are dangerous. (Makes the implicit assignment "David Koresh was a religious fanatic.")
E-PRIME: The government considered David Koresh, whose followers believed he was God, a danger to their authority. (Talks about who holds what beliefs.)

ENGLISH: Natalie Merchant's voice is the most beautiful in the world.
E-PRIME: I like Natalie Merchant's voice better than anyone else's.

ENGLISH: Natalie Merchant is a Commie dupe.
E-PRIME: Natalie Merchant has said she thinks private property is bad. (An operational statement of an observable fact regarding something somebody has said.)

(dV/dt)


What do extropians think of cryonics/biostasis?

Being frozen is the second-worst thing that can happen to you. (The very worst is dying without being frozen!) Many extropians have made arrangements for cryonic suspension. Both light and electron microscopy of tissue frozen with current techniques (cryoprotectant infusion and gradual cooling to liquid nitrogen temperatures) indicates that the damage done by the freezing process itself primarily takes the form of relatively large intercellular fissures or cracks which visually fit back together jigsaw-puzzle fashion, rather than small intracellular disruptions. This means the chances are good that a molecularly-precise machine technology should enable us to correct the freezing damage (along with whatever killed the patient in the first place).

This possibility of repair is far from a certainty. However, this small but finite chance is incomparably greater than the chances of revival after a cremation or burial (which are zero). To cryonicists, the chance of resuscitation is worth the money required to fund cryonic suspension arrangements. If resuscitation proves impossible, they reason, you are no "deader" than you would have been without suspension, so what have you lost? Ralph Merkle has popularized the following "payoff matrix":

You sign up for cryonics You don't
Cryonics works You live You're dead
It doesn't You're dead You're dead

Ralph has also pointed out that the proper experimental design to test for the clinical effectiveness of cryonics is to freeze a sample of n patients, wait 150 years, and see how many of them can be revived with the technology available at that time (using their unfrozen contemporaries as the control group). The question each of us must answer is: Do you want to be in the experimental group, or the control group?

(dV/dt)

NOTE: The reasoning behind Ralph Merkle's "payoff matrix" is strongly reminiscent of Pascal's Wager, which concerns a similar decision regarding a future unknown. The Wikipedia page summarizes the argument thus: "even though the existence of God cannot be determined through reason, a person should wager as though God exists, because living life accordingly has everything to gain, and nothing to lose." Similar arguments were made in Arabic and Sanskrit texts, both many centuries before Pascal. — (rpm), May 2010]


What is the Singularity?

Human history has been characterized by an accelerating rate of technological progress. It is caused by a positive feedback loop. A new technology, such as agriculture, allows an increase in population. A larger population has more brains at work, so the next technology is developed or discovered more quickly. We expect that this growth rate will slow down as some fundamental limits (the speed of light, Planck's constant, etc.) are approached. This implies that there will be a time at which technological progress will be most rapid. This is a singular event in the sense that it happens once in human history.

Vernor Vinge, who popularized the concept in his book Marooned in Real Time has a different definition. The pace of progress became very rapid, and then at some point mankind simply disappeared (as far as humans who missed the event by being in stasis too long could tell). He implied that they ascended to a more sophisticated level of existence. So that time horizon when we can no longer say anything useful about the future is Vinge's Singularity. One would expect that his version of the Singularity would recede in time as time goes by, i.e. the horizon moves with us.

(de), (pcm)


When will the Singularity occur?

The most common guess is that the near edge of the Singularity is due about the year 2035 AD.

The strongest argument for the timing of the singularity is the trend in computers. They aren't terribly smart right now, but that's because the human brain has about 50,000 times the raw power of today's computers (in 1998).

The brain has something like 1011 neurons with 1000 synapses each with a peak firing rate of 1000 Hz, for a raw bit rate of 1017 bits/sec. A 300 MHz, 64-bit chip has a raw bit rate of 1.9x1010. You can buy about 100 complete PC's for the cost of hiring one engineer, giving you about 2x1012 bits/sec, or about a factor of 50,000 less than a human brain.

The performance/price ratio of computers has been doubling every two years or so, and that rate has been pretty constant since ENIAC, so we expect that in about 32 years (when computing power is about 64000 times higher), the total amount of brain-power available (human + computer) will begin to take a rapid jump upward.

On several occasions there has been concern that we are nearing some fundamental limits to semiconductor technology. For example, after the period in 1993-1997 when the "speed-doubling time" was only 18 months, clock speeds finally started to reach an asymptote at about 5 GHz. It took a while for the mainstream to adapt to using multiple processors to move forward Limits to the power of an individual processor can be largely overcome via parallel processing.

Some people expect that nanotechnology advances will cause the singularity. Eric Drexler is reportedly predicting that this will happen much sooner than 2035.

Another interesting threshold which may influence the singularity is the self-replicating machine. At some point we will have tools capable of modeling and designing such machines, and shortly thereafter building them. A finite investment in building the first such machine will yield an exponentially expanding output. This has radical consequences for wealth levels, etc. Even nearly self-replicating machines (say 99% capable) will have dramatic economic effects.

More generally, history (over the long-term, from the rise of civilization to the present) includes many discoveries, advances and important events, which can each be given a "score" based on how important they are. If you consider all events whose "score" is greater than a certain cut-off value you will see that they are distributed unevenly over time, with more events in the recent past than in the distant past. Furthermore, although no curve or function is a perfect fit, the best fit is given by a function that has an infinite value at a time in the near future (like 1/(T-x), as opposed to the exponential ex function). However this could be observational selection bias

(de), (pcm), (rpm)


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