The Technium

What Comes After Minds?

[Translations: Japanese]

The human mind is the most complex thing we know. We feel this intuitively. But complexity is hard to measure. The total number of cells in a human brain may be no more than those in a watermelon, yet the diversity and functions of those cells in the brain exceed those in a fruit.


We can count up the number of parts, links, subparts, logical depth, and degrees of freedom of various complicated entities (a jumbo jet, rainforest, a star fish) and the final tally of components may near the total for a brain. Yet the function and results of those parts are way more complicated than the sum of the parts. When we begin to consider the multiple processes each part participates in, the complexity of the mind becomes more evident. Considered in the light of their behavior, living things outrank the inert in complexity, and smart things outrank dumb ones. We also have evidence for this claim in our efforts to manufacture complexity. Making a stone hammer is pretty easy. Making a horseless carriage more difficult. Making a synthetic organism more so. A human mind is yet more difficult to synthesize or recreate. We have not come close to achieving an artificial mind and some believe the complexity of the mind is so great that we will forever fail in that quest. Because of this difficulty and uncertainty, the mind is currently the paragon of complexity in creation.

If anything might rival the mind’s ultimate complexity, it would be the planetary biosphere. In its sheer mass and scale, the tangle of zillions of organisms and vast ecosystems in the biosphere trumps the 5 kilos of neurons and synapses in the brain – by miles. Yet we tend to assign greater complexity to the mind for two reasons. One, we think we understand how ecosystems work, although we can’t yet predict how they all work together. We have not conquered its planetary scale. On the other hand, we are baffled how the human mind works even in small regions.  Scale is just one problem. Our mind parts are much more deeply entangled, reflective, recursive, and woven together into a unified whole than the biosphere. As a whole, the mind is a mystery still.

Two, the output of the biosphere is primarily more of itself. It will self-regulate and slowly evolve new species, but it has not produced new types of creation – except of course it produced human minds. But human minds have created all these other things, including miniature ecosystems and tiny biospheres, so we assign greater complexity to it.

This point was better said, more succinctly, by Emily Dickinson in her grenade of a poem.

The brain is wider than the sky,

For, put them side by side,

The one the other will contain,

With ease, and you, beside.

The asymmetry of compression is an important metric. The fact that the brain can contain an abstract of the biosphere, but the biosphere not contain an abstract of a human mind, suggests one is larger, or more complex, than the other.

While we have not yet made anything as complex as a human mind, we are trying to. The question is, what would be more complex than a human mind? What would we make if we could? What would such a thing do? In the story of technological evolution – or even biological evolution – what comes after minds?

The usual response to “what comes after a human mind” is better, faster, bigger minds. The same thing only more. That is probably true – we might be able to make or evolve bigger faster minds — but as pictured they are still minds.

A more recent response, one that I have been championing, is that what comes after minds may be a biosphere of minds, an ecological network of many minds and many types of minds – sort of like rainforest of minds – that would have its own meta-level behavior and consequences. Just as a biological rainforest processes nutrients, energy, and diversity, this system of intelligences would process problems, memories, anticipations, data and knowledge. This rainforest of minds would contain all the human minds connected to it, as well as various artificial intelligences, as well as billions of semi-smart things linked up into a sprawling ecosystem of intelligences. Vegetable intelligences, insect intelligences, primate intelligences and human intelligences and maybe superhuman intelligences, all interacting in one seething network. As in any ecosystem, different agents have different capabilities and different roles. Some would cooperate, some would compete. The whole complex would be a dynamic beast, constantly in flux.

Franklin Trees 02

We could imagine the makeup of a rainforest of minds, but what would it do? Having thoughts, solving problems is what minds do. What does an ecosystem of minds do that an individual mind does not?

And what comes after it, if a biome of intelligences is next? If we let our imaginations construct the most complex entity possible, what does it do? I have found we either imagine it as a omniscient mind, or as a lesser god (almost the same thing). In a certain sense we can’t get beyond the paragon of a mind.

Cultures run on metaphors. The human mind is the current benchmark metaphor for our scientific society. Once upon a time we saw nature as an animal, then it was a clock, now we see it as a kind of mind. A mind is the metaphor for ultimate mystery, ultimate awe. It represents the standard for our attempts at creation. It is the metric for complexity. It is also our prison because we can’t see beyond it. This is the message of the Singularitans: we are incapable of imagining what comes after a human mind.

I don’t believe that, but I don’t know what the answer is either. I think it is too early in our technological development to have reached a limit of complexity. Surely in the next 100 or 500 years we’ll construct entities many thousands of times more complex than a human mind. As these ascend in prominence they will become the new metaphor.

Often the metaphor precedes the reality. We build what we can imagine. Can we imagine – now – what comes after minds?

  • Tom Crowl

    If free will is a product of the indetermanancy of fundamental reality (the quantum fluctuation)

    And, as some have suggested, the ‘purpose’ of the evolution of consciousness is to expand until the universe itself is conscious…

    What does it do when it gets there?

    An answer for late-nite debate:

    It either creates the universe which is itself…
    or it does not! (remember that time is rolled up in the same ball)

    And THAT IS the ultimate question we face every moment from now till then.

    To be or not to be…

  • stephanie gerson

    “What does an ecosystem of minds do that an individual mind does not?” alternatively, what does an ecosystem of minds do for the individual minds that compose it? (yup, hinting towards interaction at different scales of organization…)

    more broadly, how will the human mind change as it interacts with/participates in an ecology of minds? how will this affect how the human mind understands the human mind, and its complexity?

    will a biosphere of minds enable the biosphere to contain an abstract of the human mind, therefore changing the asymmetry of compression?

    not being Socratic, just genuinely curious ;)

    • Kevin Kelly

      @ Stephenie: great questions. Wanna take a stab at an answer or two?

  • Tom Buckner

    When you come right down to it, a mind is an internal modeling system with an isomorphic relationship to some outer reality. We may not understand what patterns of electricity in our brains “really” correspond to outer phenomena, not what these outer phenomena “really” are, but we generally assume both exist. On the other hand, if there were no true outer reality at all… how would we know?

    That’s what makes our mind different from the biosphere. The biosphere, like our brain/mind, is a very complex web of interactions. But the biosphere, unlike our brain/mind, is not modeling some external system. As far as we know. I say this with the assumption that we are talking about the entire biosphere of Earth life and processes. However, parts of the biosphere could model the whole.

    In a sense we already have a biosphere of minds. Our difficulty imagining it has much to do with the fact that our brains are such a small part of it. How much of a beehive can a bee’s brain model? Not much; just enough to get through the day.

    But our biosphere of minds could become much more complex and interconnected; the question is what its limits are. A mind, modeling the outer world as it does, reacts to inputs by alterations in its internal model, and its output is whatever observable behavior it may generate. More minds, of more kinds, means more entities large and small that can model each other’s behavior, and themselves can behave.

    For the biosphere of minds itself to be a mind, what outside reality can it model? So far, our biosphere has the universe beyond Earth to observe and react to. And we can see that the human race, alone among Earth organisms, has observed the universe and learned a lot about it. And we have begun to emit signals that other biospheres might detect, model, and react to. If any community of worlds is possible, we have begun to join it.

    Closer to home, though, I would say that a healthy biosphere appears to require maximum variety; monoculture lowers complexity, and I suspect it is a sign of ill health in a complex system. So it would be in a biosphere of minds: a healthy biosphere of minds would contain many kinds of mind, interacting in many, many mutually supporting ways.

  • 2008Af

    At the moment our genes generate structures capable of association. Groups of neurons create groups of simulators that are read by a mistery named consciousness. A better mind will certainly depend on innovation that might come in the form of gene generated structures or manipulated generated structures capable of new functions or activities. Example: Flying, disappearing…

  • Charles Janecka

    I did enjoy your article. Your voracious curiousity is refreshing to me. I also appreciated how you stressed complexity and not intelligence which seems to typically be the case.

    I do have to take issue with your assertion on how the mind is more complex than the biosphere. I think it comes down to the assumption that the human brain is seperate from the biosphere. I have to disagree with this assumption. I am almost immediately tempted to say that the brain requires the biosphere in order to exist. However, I recognize it is more prudent to point out that the human brain developed inside of, is embodied in, and is a part of the biosphere. Given a system composes of interconnected parts, no one of those parts can be said to be more complex than the whole. Let me go about it a different route.

    If one were to exclude the human brain from the biosphere, one should be prone to exlude cat brains, dog brains, and the electrical impulses existing inside of jellyfish. If one were not prone to do such a thing then a description of the human brain is being made which makes it distinct from the other animals. I assume the reason for making this distinction is that humans make things that are not themselves, i.e. technology. However, this does not seem so privileged of a definition when one considers that beavers make dams, ants make nests, bees make hives, and chimpanzees even make tools out of sticks.

    When comparing the human brain and its accomplishments to the biosphere one must recognize that technology itself is part of the biosphere just as much as a beaver’s dam is. Both the a beaver’s dam and the Hoover Dam have an effect on, use materials from, and are situated in the biosphere.

    I would argue that not only is the biosphere more complicated than the human brain but it is because of the human brain. Just imagine how the complexities of energy which exist in the biosphere have risen as a result of masses of human brains acting concert (civilization). Before the human race when an animal died its organic bonds were converted into hydrocarbon bonds and forgotten by any entity not within the immediate vicinity. Now, those hydrocarbon bonds are brought up, converted into heat, converted into mechanical motion, and then converted into electrical activity which then excites some process connected to this process miles away.

    Also consider that before the human race when a rather secluded group of animals faced extinction they would almost always go so and then have an effect on their own immediate ecosystem. If this were to happen today, and it does, this species would spawn a large activity of information and energy whose effect would be something like a relocation or rehabilitation. My point is that before humans this scenario would have a limited effect on an immediate ecosystem. Now, energy spawned by this incident would propagate all over the world and therefore change it slightly. It may not be a large change, but it would be a complicated one.

    With all of this said, I would say that the human mind is not more complicated than the biosphere. However, I would say that because of the human mind the biosphere will become much more complicated than it could without the existance of the human mind and I think this is what you are referring to with the future of the mind.

  • Yihong Ding


    As usual, your thought inspires us to pursue more knowledge out of the field of unknown.

    On the issue that Stephanie has raised and you have also questioned in the post, I would humbly recommend both you and Stephanie (or anyone else who is interested in the issue) to be aware of a new service called Imindi. The service is currently in the private alpha, but it addresses the question and provides an answer.

    Before we may know what comes after minds, however, we may need to first resolve another question — whether we can preserve *active* (or *lively*) mind when the host of the mind passes away.

    I believe that a reason preventing us from knowing whatever beyond minds is that no minds can keep on thinking after the owner of the minds is dead. In order to approach beyond minds, minds themselves must first be able to keep alive for long time! When we say a mind must keep alive, it means that the mind can continuously compute based on whatever it knows, in contrast to becoming certain static knowledge written in books.

    This is what Imindi is trying to do. Imindi tries to implement a mechanism that helps people preserve their mind actively (i.e. may think and compute by itself) in the virtual world of the Web. The service thus helps people to transform their internal memory into the so-called “external memory” so that they cannot be lost after their death.

    From the commercial point of view, the active, computable “external memory” may eventually become the “Mind Asset” I coined to present a new source of wealth beyond capital. From the philosophical point of view, the embodiment of “external memory” may lead us to a new type of eternal life. That is, even if our bodies are inevitably older and eventually are going back to earth, our minds never die and may continuously speak to the end of the world.

    If there might be a chance, I am eager to learning more from you on this fascinating issue. Really wish to be able to contact you and have more discussion of it.


  • Dirk P Balow

    Is it possible that this thread and many other like topics derive themselves from the one “true” engine of humanity………….(desire)? Without it, we wither. This is a good ongoing read. Keep it up people!

  • Bill Thomas

    Two quick comments.

    Mind vs. biosphere – I believe that a single mind is capable of creating many biospheres. If you think of the idea of terraforming, forgetting for a minute that we cannot do it today. It’s logical to say a single mind or a small group of minds working together could do it, and do it many times. So the idea that our biosphere is more complex than our mind just because we are housed in it doesn’t stand up. My mind is housed in my body, which is complex, and a part of me, but not nearly as complex as my mind. My body is housed in my house……

    I have thought a lot about what a mind is and what it does. The old definitions about tools and language and technology don’t seem to make much sense when looked at carefully. I think what makes a mind unique from other complex systems is what it does; create complexity and build connections.

    A mind creates art and music and complex ideas for their own sake. It builds and shares connections with other minds simply to connect.

    What happens when the minds can connect directly to create complexity and build connections without the bottleneck of speech and books and bodies…. It’s almost impossible to draw distinct lines now about where you stop and where the rest of the world begins – perhaps there are no sharp lines. This will be even more true with direct connections between minds.

    And if the sum is greater than the parts, it will be a monstorously complex and intelligent thing that emerges – let’s hope it likes us.

  • zubairahmad

    what next?” in every era people ask this question and some people try to imagine and gives answers. but tomorrow never comes. I am sure after 100 years same question will there and some will be trying to guess………..

  • Nick

    One hundred years ago, this conversation would be so difficult to have; first to have the right minds in the right room, second to have those minds in the right frame of mind to further the thought, and third, to get the new ideas out where more minds could get at them.

    Maybe what comes after minds is what we’re doing here, right now. Your initial post has already generated a wealth of new ideas that feed back in to our own minds. I think the biosphere of minds already exists, and we’re recursively deepening it by participating in it; but, we’re so much a part of it, we might not even see it!

    In my mind, what would be awesome to have next is if these recursively deepening conversations could occur without being glued to a desk and a monitor. My mind to your mind as Mr. Spock might say :)

    Of course, as mind is amplified, the lows are amplified as well as the highs (as we’ve seen recently with tragic results on social networking sites). Maybe we would need a new caste of uplift workers; or maybe such would emerge naturally as an auto-immune response to keep minds clean and healthy!

  • Brett

    I think we all enjoy this topic so much for the same reason people enjoy trying to grasp an extra-dimensional shape. They are topics that we can know a lot about (we can calculate likely productivity/processing rates for the decades to come, much like we know the number of perpendicular lines in a tesseract), but we are doomed to never really “feel” it.

    …Until, of course, it happens, and we’ll all react the way we do to all new change now. “So they’re doing that now, hm?” (Because, of course, it creeps up so slowly, any given improvement seems not miraculous, but just inevitable.)

  • Robert

    This is how I see it as well. We seem to be headed toward a sort of distributed consciousness, pervasive throughout anything that can provide information to us (and it).

  • Yuri van Geest

    Again great post Kevin!

    “Man knows himself only to the extent that he knows the world; he becomes aware of himself only within the world, and aware of the world only within himself. Every object, well contemplated, opens up a new organ of perception within us.”

    Goethe wrote this a long time ago but it seems to have some validity in our times. I like the idea of Jaron Lanier in this respect as he told his vision on the future within Joel Garreaus’ book Radical Evolution. Increasing direct interconnections between minds leading up to more authenticity, love, cooperation, empathy and productivity. This can already be seen in the speeches and work of Kevin Warwick, the cyborg, with direct brain interfaces and the web.
    In my view this is not a deterministic positive outcome but the context/system of this connected minds infrastructure might help in this respect. See the recent talk by Clay Shirky ( and the way cooperation is ‘engineered’ within Wikipedia, Knol, Citizendium, FreeBase and Slashdot. Transparency in every aspect seems key here. This context might also apply to the Screen Fluency post by Kevin Kelly a few days back.

    Back to Goethes’ quote I envision that we develop new perceptions, a extended sense of self and of the world at large, a new broader identity and a stronger believe in biological principles and love as the ultimate driving force. The latter as a result of more direct and intense interfaces with other minds.

    Question remains though how to filter all data, information, emotions, ideas and people. Perhaps the work by Jonathan Harris ( might be of value here.

    Stephanie asked great questions indeed. Hope my 2 cents helped a little.

  • Alex Tolley

    “What would we make if we could? What would such a thing do? In the story of technological evolution – or even biological evolution – what comes after minds?”

    When Olaf Stapledon asked this question, his asswer was “Star Maker” (pub. 1937). The purpose of minds was to understand the “creator”.

    Today we would require a more naturalistic answer.

    I think that type of the answer depends on how independent those minds are. We already have a sparse forest ecosystem of minds, less sparse if you accept Doug Hofstadter’s view that mind is not a binary thing, but rather a continuum. In this case we are already part of an ecosystem with many other minds. That ecosystem will increasingly contain artificial “minds”, much as today it already contains lots of artificial products of humanity. If minds are independent, then they will interact just like any other individual and we will see analogues of organisms in natural world.

    If however, those minds are not independent, but become part of a supermind, then we may see a qualitative difference. It may be like an ant colony where each mind is embodied in a different body, or it may be become a single entity if the supermind perceives itself as a single entity.

    What might these minds do might be potentially as incomprehensible as the purpose of an ant colony is to each individual ant.

    • Kevin Kelly

      @Alex: I agree that mind must be a continum. And I agree this might be true:” What might these minds do might be potentially as incomprehensible as the purpose of an ant colony is to each individual ant.” But it might not be. We ants may be able to comprehend our colony. Difficult but possible. That is the assignment I’ve taken.

  • Charles Janecka

    @Bill Thomas

    I understand your argument. However, you are still foundationally considering the mind as being seperate. If you consider the mind as a part of the biosphere then the biosphere would have to be more complex than any one of its parts.

    The difference between a house and the biosphere is that your body is not made up of pieces of the biosphere (you do not eat your house).

    Our bodies are not static. The material which makes up our bodies is gotten from the biosphere and also returns to it. Most of the cells in the brain do not reproduce, but were grown at one time. They were grown out of the substrate of the biosphere. The mind uses energy gotten from the biosphere and is then a part of it. A mind would be able to survive without a house, but can not even exist without a biosphere.

    As for terraforming, we would not create a new biosphere as much as we would be setting it into motion. There are many chemical reactions which do not occur without a catalyst. However, this does not mean that the catalyst is more complicated or ‘contains’ the reaction.


    Back to the general topic, I wonder what a more intimately connected society of minds would do to the concept of individuality. I am already aware that I am influenced by those around me. I still regard myself as a separate individual as my body is separate.

    If I were physically hurt another it does not mean that I would necessarily be physically hurt as well. I would certainly feel an emotional hurt, but maybe it would not be as bad as the physical hurt.

    This is how I can say I am in a way separate from you, but what if we were so connected that any attack to you would have the same effect on me? I wonder what this type of society would do to the concept of violence and war in general.

  • Eyal Sivan

    “We ants may be able to comprehend our colony. Difficult but possible. That is the assignment I’ve taken.”

    You have given yourself a very daring assignment here – this very well may not be possible. There is no analogue for this in nature (but then again, there is no analogue for us in nature).

    If you agree with the position of mind as a continuum (@Charles, great comment), then as such, we are already part of a rainforest of minds. But we must not forget that we are unique individuals as well. And then each of us are a rainforest of genes/neurons at an even lower scale.

    I believe the ability to see systems as occurring on multiple scales at once, what I call scale-free thinking, is key to this discussion. My full response can be found here.

  • Glenn

    “The human mind is the most complex thing we know. We feel this intuitively.”

    I used to think the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. They I realized who was telling me this.
    – Emo Phillips

    • Kevin Kelly

      @ Glen: LOL!!!!! Thanks.

  • Tom Crowl

    Mr. Sivan is definitely on to something. And looking over his site is definitely worth the effort.

    This has important relevance in scaling representative government (and business) to facilite just that: the expansion of scale-free thinking among both leaders and citizens.

    The often seen lack of this expanded identification by leaders results in a willingness to excuse incompetence by appointees (e.g.) because the leader “identifies” more with this smaller group than his supposed constituency.

    In other words, this smaller group forms for such a leader a cohesive organism more substantial than the larger structure to which he may owe allegiance.

    The issue of what could be called “natural human community size” has to do with the somewhat arbitrary definition of how an indivudual determines his degree of identification with one group or another.

    I copy this Iqbal Quadir quote from Mr. Sivan’s site which has relevance:

    “If concentration of power has contributed to poor governance, the solution must lie in dispersing power… ICTs empower from below while devolving power from above, resulting in a two-pronged attack on abuse of state power that has left so much of the world’s population languishing in poverty… ICTs can be the means to both freedom and development by blindsiding obstacles to both.”

    *ICT = Information & Communication Technology

  • Eyal Sivan

    @Tom, just wanted to say thank you for the great compliment. But it all started with Mr. Kelly. His Out of Control was instrumental for me.

    And ‘Mr.’ is certainly not necessary, Eyal is fine. Thanks again.

  • Tom Crowl


    COOL! I’m feeling like a kid in a candy store!

  • Alex Tolley

    KK: “We ants may be able to comprehend our colony. Difficult but possible. That is the assignment I’ve taken.”

    So what approaches will you use to tackle this problem?

  • m_c1

    In my opinion it’s not about a total number of cells in a human brain or a number of individual parts in a “rainforest of minds” – it is about the connections!
    We need to understand the way all these different parts connect with and react to each other. I would argue that the first step towards creation of a “biosphere of minds” is the creation of the central nervous system to enable effective connections between our individual minds (I do not mean telepathy, that would come much later). That’s what we have been trying to create technologically with the Internet, i.e. the Internet is our nervous system and our collective brain – our collective mind (as opposed to the brain) will evolve as we better understand and activate the most productive ways to respond to biological, economic, social, information and emotional stimuli.
    Only then we can apply scale-free thinking so aptly described in Eyal’s post (thanks, @Eyal).