The Technium

Extropy


Extropy is neither wave nor particle, nor pure energy. It is an immaterial force that is very much like information. Since extropy is defined as negative entropy — the reversal of disorder — it is, by definition, an increase in order. But what is order? Despite our intuitive sense, we lack a good operational definition of order, which seems to be tied up with complexity (see Ordained Becoming). For simple physical systems, the concepts of thermodynamics suffice, but for the real world of cucumbers, brains, books, and self-driving trucks, we don’t have useful metrics for extropy. The best we can say is that extropy resembles, but is not equivalent to, information.

We can not make an exact informational definition of extropy because we don’t really know what information is. In fact the term “information” covers several contradictory concepts that should have their own terms. We use information to mean 1) a bunch of bits, or 2) a meaningful signal. When entropy (disorder) increases, it produces “more information” as in more bits. But when entropy decreases, it is the same as a rise in extropy (negative entropy) which produces “more information” as in more structured meaningful bits.  Until we clarify our language the term information is more metaphor than anything else. I try use it in the second meaning here (not always successfully): as in bits that make a difference.

Mudding the waters further, information is the reigning metaphor of the moment. We tend to interpret the mysteries surrounding life in imagery suggested by the most complex system we are aware of at the time. Once nature was described as a body, then a clock in the age of clocks, then a machine in the industrial age. Now in the “digital age” we apply the computational metaphor (see The Computational Metaphor). To explain the how our minds work, or how evolution advances, we apply the pattern of a very large software program processing bits of information. None of these historical metaphorical pictures are wrong; just incomplete. Ditto for computation. But extropy must be more than information alone. We have thousands of years of science ahead of us. Information and computation can’t be the most complex immaterial entity there is, just the most complex we’ve discovered so far. We might eventually discover that extropy involves quantum dynamics, or gravity, or even quantum gravity. But for now, information (in the sense of structure) is a better analogy than anything else we know of for understanding the nature of extropy. Following information will reveal a larger pattern.

In the initial era of the universe, energy dominated existence. At that time radiation was all there was. The universe was a glow. Slowly, as space expanded and cooled, matter took over. Matter was clumpy, unevenly distributed, but its crystallization generated gravity which began to shape space. With the rise of life (in our immediate neighborhood) information ascended in influence. The informational process we call life took control of the atmosphere of Earth several billion years ago. Now the technium, another informational processing, is reconquering it. Extropy’s rise in the universe (from the perspective of our planet) might look like this chart, where E=energy, M=mass, and I=information.

Dominatuniverse

The billion-years rise of extropy — as it flings up stable molecules, solar systems, a planetary atmosphere, life, mind and the technium — can be restated as the slow accumulation of ordered information. Or rather, the slow ordering of accumulated information.

This is more clearly seen at the extreme. The difference between four bottles of amino acids on a laboratory self and the four amino acids arrayed in your chromosomes lies in the additional structure, or ordering, those atoms get from participating in the spirals of your replicating DNA. Same atoms, more order. Those atoms of amino acids acquire yet another level of structure and order when their cellular host undergoes evolution. As organisms evolve, the informational code their atoms carry is manipulated, processed, and reordered. In addition to genetic information, the atoms now convey adaptive information. Over time, the same atoms can be promoted to new levels of order. Perhaps their one cell home joins another cell to become multicellular — that demands the informational architecture for a larger organism as well as a cell. Further transitions in evolution — the aggregation into tissues and organs, the acquisition of sex, the creation of social groups — continue to elevate the order and increase the structure of the information flowing through those same atoms.

The technium can be understood as a way of structuring information beyond biology. Foremost among all inventions is language, and its kin writing, which introduced a parallel set of symbol strings to those found in DNA. But the grammar and syntax of language far outstrips the flexibility of the genetic code. Literary inventions like the book index, punctuation, cross-references, and alphabetic order permitted incredibly complex structures within words; printing broadcast them. Calendars and other scripts captured abstractions such as time, or music. The invention of the scientific method in the 17th century was a series of deepening organizational techniques. Data was first measured, then recorded, analyzed, forecasted and disseminated. The wide but systematic exchange of information via wires, radio waves and society meetings upped the complexity of information flowing through the technium. Innovations in communications (phonograph, telegraph, television) sped up the rate of coordination, and also added new levels of systemization. The invention of paper was a more permanent memory device than the brain; photographic film even better. Cheap digital chips lowered the barrier for storing ephemeral information, further intensifying the density of information. Highly designed artifacts and materials are atoms stuffed with layers of complex information. The most mechanical superstructures we’ve ever built – say skyscrapers, or the Space Shuttle, or the Hadron Supercollider — are giant physical manifestations of incredibly structured information. There are many more hours of design poured into them than hours in manufacturing. Finally, the two greatest inventions in the last 25 years, the link and the tag, have woven new levels of complexity into the web of information. The technium of today reflects 8,000 years of almost daily incremental increases in its embedded knowledge.

For four billion years evolution has been accumulating knowledge in its library of genes. You can learn a lot in four billion years. Every one of the 30 million or so unique species of life on the planet today is an unbroken informational thread that traces back to the very first cell. That thread (DNA) learns something new each generation, and adds that hard-won knowledge to its code.  Geneticist Motoo Kimura estimates that the total genetic information accumulated since the Cambrian explosion 500 million years ago is 10 megabytes per genetic lineage.  Now multiply the unique information held by every individual organism by all the organisms alive in the world today and you get an astronomically large treasure.  Imagine the Noah’s Ark that would be needed to carry the genetic payload of every organism on earth (seeds, eggs, spores, sperms). One study estimated the earth harbored 10^30 single-cell microbes. A typical microbe, like a yeast, produces one one-bit mutation per generation, which means one bit of unique information for every organism alive. Simply counting the microbes alone (about 50% of the biomass), the biosphere contains 10^30 bits, or 10^29 bytes, or 10,000 yottabyes of genetic information. That’s a lot.

And that is only the biological information. The technium is awash in its own ocean of information. Measured by the amount of digital storage in use, the technium today contains 487 exabytes (10^20) of information, many orders smaller than nature’s total, but growing. Technology expands data by 66% per year, overwhelming the growth rates of any natural source.  Compared to other planets in the neighborhood, or to the dumb material drifting in space beyond, a thick blanket of learning and self-organized information surround this orb.

This store of order is a surprise. Earth’s great heap of structure, complexity and knowledge does not seem to be contained “in” the physics that govern non-extropic stuff. Where do you hide 10^29 bytes of organization? The rules behind the fundamental behavior of the elemental particles and energies that make up our reality are very spare, almost naked.  It might take books and books to explain them in words, but the laws themselves can be compressed into a very small amount of information. If you were to take all the known laws of physics, formulas such as f=ma, E=mc^2, S= K log W, and more complicated ones that describe how liquids flow, or objects spin, or electrons jump, and write them all down in one file, they would fit onto a single gigabyte CD disk. Amazingly, one plastic plate could contain the operating code for the entire universe. Even if we currently know only 0.1% of the actual number of laws guiding universal processes, many of which we are undoubtedly still unaware of, and the ultimate file of physical laws was 1,000 times bigger, it would fit onto one high-density “disk” in a few years from now.  The total code for matter/energy is an infinitesimal fraction compared to mountain of extropic information that has accumulated on this planet. In fact the genome of a single living organism contains more information than required by all the laws of physics.

Another way to say this is that the laws of physics don’t (as far as we know) improve with time, but extropic systems like life, mind and the technium do. Over billions of years they gain order, complexity, and their own self-organized autonomy — all things not present in the universe before. As Paul Davies points out, “life as we observe it today is 1 percent physics and 99 percent history.” Life, and by extension mind and the technium, are only loosely governed by physics (just 1%); mostly they are ruled by their own self-creation.

But where did this remarkable harvest of lawful order come from if it was not somehow “built into” that tiny file of physical laws? I claim that the trajectory of the technium was embedded into the fabric of matter and energy. If that is true, then one literal interpretation of that claim is that the 10^29 bytes of information now in the extropic realm were somehow dissolved into the one gigabyte of information of the physical laws, and unpacked over time. By the same logic, the dense leafy information displayed by a huge oak tree was previously dissolved into the microscopic informational packet of a tiny acorn, and unpacked over 80 years.  This is true to some extent, but not entirely.

In an important way, this unfolding information is not contained in the physical realm. To be clear, I do not mean that it is supernatural. Either extropy must exist in the universe it is transforming, or it must exist outside of it as a supernatural force. If outside, then its dynamics are outside the range of science and of this book. I make the assumption that extropy is not a mystical supernatural force but operates in the lawful realm of physical reality. That is, we can measure it.

However it is immaterial. It is immaterial in the way that a bit is immaterial even though every bit must be incarnated in a physical medium of mass and energy. It takes measurable energy to accomplish computation, to self-organize, to add order. And that work must be stabilized, ratcheted, in matter. So information and extropy must flow through the physical world. Yet the results of that flow through matter and energy is a set of immaterial qualities: knowledge, increasing order, increasing diversity, and increasing sentience.

Another way to read the long-term trajectory of extropy is to view it as an escape from the material and the transcendence to the immaterial. In the early universe, only the laws of physics reigned. The rules of chemistry, torque, electrostatic charges and other such reversible forces were all that mattered. There was no other game. Self-organization introduced a new vector into the world. Evolution and life open up possibilities for matter and energy that did not exist in the pre-extropy universe. These possibilities (like a living cell) did not contradict the rules of chemistry and physics, but in a certain sense they allowed the new forms to escape the ordinary strictures of these laws, which would otherwise lead to simple mechanical forms. Paul Davies summarizes it well: “The secret of life does not lie in its chemical basis…Life succeeds precisely because it evades chemical imperatives.”

Our present economic migration from a material-based industry to a knowledge economy of intangible goods (such as software, design, and media products) is just the latest in a steady move towards the immaterial. (Not that material processing has let up, just that intangible processing is now more valuable.) In six years the average weight per dollar of US exports (the most valuable things the US produces) dropped by half. Forty percent of US exports today are services (intangibles) rather than manufactured goods (atoms). Disembodiment of value (more value, less mass) is a steady trend in the technium. We substitute intangible design for heavy atoms, making materials simultaneously stronger and lighter, or devices smaller and more powerful. Generally we make things more valuable by adding intangibles such as design, flexibility, innovation and smartness.

Usexportsgs1960-2004

Dematerialization is not the only way in which extropy advances. The technium’s ability to compress information into highly refined structures is also a triumph of the immaterial. For instance, science (starting with Newton) has been able to abstract massive amounts of evidence about movement into the very simple law f=ma. Likewise, Einstein reduced enormous numbers of empirical observations into the very condensed container of E=mc^2. Every scientific theory is in the end a compression of information. In this way, our libraries stacked with peer-reviewed, cross-indexed, annotated, equation-riddled journal articles are great mines of concentrated information.

As extropy self-organizes the universe into more complex structures, with more abstraction, and greater compression of information, it overthrows the constraints of the material realm. The  arc of extropy is the slow, yet irreversible, liberation from the imperative of matter and energy. It shifts dominance to informational processes such as evolution, learning, and invention. It unleashes the intangible and immaterial.

Most people can appreciate how the essence of living things might be information and order. Information is vague enough to be similar to the idea of a “spirit.” But if my hypothesis is true — that life is an extension of a 14 billion-year old inanimate autonomous order, one that now continues into the machines of technology — then this same spirit of information must reside at the core of the non-living world as well. Although it may not dominate matter’s behavior, information must rest in the essence of matter. That’s a lot less intuitive. When we bang a knee against a table leg, it sure doesn’t feel like we knocked into information. But that’s the idea many physicists are formulating.

Once scientists built large scopes to examine matter below the level of fleeting quarks and muons, they saw the world was incorporeal. They discovered that matter is, at the bottom, empty space and waves of quantum uncertainties. A particle’s existence is a continuous field of probabilities, which blurs the sharp distinction between is/is not. Yet this fundamental uncertainty resolves as soon as information is added (that is, as soon as it’s measured). At that moment of knowledge, all other possibilities collapse to leave only the single state of “is” or “is not.” Indeed, the very term “quantum” suggests an indefinite realm constantly resolving into discrete increments, precise yes/no states. Quantum wavicles, along with everything else in the universe, are mostly made of nothing but binary logic.

The physicist John Archibald Wheeler (coiner of the term “black hole”) claimed that, fundamentally, atoms are made up of 1′s and 0′s. As he put it in a 1989 lecture, “Its are from bits.” He elaborated: “Every it – every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself – derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely from binary choices, bits.” All movement, all actions, all nouns, all functions, all states, all we see, hear, measure, and feel are elaborate cathedrals built out of bits. After stripping away all externalities, all material embellishments, what remains of the primeval “it” is the purest state of existence: here/not here. Am/not am. In the Old Testament, when Moses asks the Creator, “Who are you?” the being says, in effect, “Am.” One bit. One almighty bit. Yes. One. Exist. It is the simplest statement possible.

All creation is assembled from irreducible bits. The bits are like the “atoms” of classical Greece: the tiniest constituent of existence. But these new digital atoms are the basis not only of matter, as the Greeks thought, but of energy, motion, mind, and life. Everything that is! Movement, energy, gravity, dark matter, and antimatter are elaborate circuits of 1/0 decisions. Every mountain, every star, each flight of a thrown ball, the smallest salamander or woodland tick, each thought in our mind,  is but a web of elemental yes/nos woven together.

Wheeler adds, “What we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes/no questions.” In this new perspective, as two hydrogen and one oxygen bind together to form a water molecule, each hydrogen atom uses quantum processes to decide yes/no for all possible courses toward the oxygen atom, until they arrive at the optimal 104.45 degrees union. Thus every chemical bond is thus “calculated.”

Computation is the muscle of extropy. Computation is a type of self-organization that juggles and manipulates these primal information bits. It silently employs a small amount of energy to rearrange symbols into greater order. The input of computation is energy and information; the output is order, structure, extropy. The final result of a material computation is a signal that makes a difference — a difference that can be felt as a bruised knee.

“Computation is a process that is perhaps *the* process,” says Danny Hillis, whose book, The Pattern on the Stone, explains the formidable nature of computation. “It has an almost mystical character because it seems to have some deep relationship to the underlying order of the universe. Exactly what that relationship is, we cannot say. At least for now.”  There is even a suspicion, though no one has proved it, that life’s self-organization may rely on computation.

If the essence of creation is a bit, then gravity, the speed of light, Higgs bosons, relativity, evolution, quantum mechanics, human emotions, and the thoughts in your mind at this moment would all be squirming piles of intersecting loops of yes/no bits, and each phenomenon would need a computational explanation. We are a long way from having a unified theory of everything in the language of bits, but we have a couple of hints that the process of computation may lie at the center.

Our awakening to the true power of computation rests on three suspicions. The first is that computation can describe all things. To date, computer scientists have been able to encapsulate every logical argument, scientific equation, and literary work that we know about into the basic notation of computation. With the advent of digital signal processing, we can capture video, music, and art in the same bit form. There is a lot of debate about how much of art can be reduced to bits, but clearly much can be. Even emotion is not immune. As one example, researcher Cynthia Breazeal at MIT built Kismet, a computational robot that exhibits primitive feelings in response to human actions. Less controversially, formal creations in mathematics, music, and language can be expressed as a valid computer program.

The second supposition is that all things can compute. Surprisingly almost any kind of material can serve as the matrix for a computer. Human brains, which are mostly water, compute fairly well. So can sticks and strings. In 1975, as an undergraduate student, Danny Hillis constructed a digital computer out of skinny Tinkertoys. In 2000, Hillis designed a binary computer made of only steel and harden alloys that is indirectly powered by human muscle. This slow-moving device computes time in a clock intended to tick for 10,000 years. Hillis hasn’t made a computer with pipes and pumps, but, he says, he could. Recently, scientists have used both quantum particles and minute strands of DNA to perform computations. Many other complex systems have been shown to be capable of computation.

The third postulate is: All computation is one. In 1937, Alan Turing and Alonso Church proved a theorem now bearing their names. The Turing-Church conjecture states that any computation executed by one computer with access to an infinite amount of storage, can be done by any other computing machine with infinite storage, no matter what its configuration. One computer can do anything another can do. This is why your Mac can, with proper software, pretend to be a PC, or, with sufficient memory, a slow supercomputer. A Dell laptop could, if anyone wanted it to, emulate an iPhone. In other words, all computation is equivalent. Turing and Church called this universal computation. Mathematician Stephen Wolfram takes this idea even further and suggests that many very complex processes in the realms of biology and technology are basically computationally equivalent. The physics of person munching on a banana is computationally equivalent to the best possible virtual simulation of the same act. Both phenomenon require the same degree of universal computation, one in particles, and one in electrons.

The consequence of these three propositions — that computation is universal, ubiquitous, and equivalent — suggests that the logical processing of bits is the most potent form of self-organization at work in the universe. While not all self-organization reaches the threshold of computation, universal computation can potentially erupt anywhere. There is currently a lot of research investigating how computation might fare in quantum dimensions and whether quantum computation might be the basis for human consciousness. It’s still an open question, but the three axioms also suggest a rather spooky corollary: If everything can compute, and all computation is equivalent, then there is only one universal computer. All the human-made computation, especially our puny little PCs, merely piggyback on cycles of the Great Computer, also known as the Universe.

No one wants to see themselves as someone else’s program running on someone else’s computer. Put that way, life seems a bit secondhand. But doctrine of universal computation means all existing things — the made, the found and the born — are linked to one another because they share, as John Wheeler said, “at the bottom — at a very deep bottom, in most instances — an immaterial source.” This commonality, spoken of by mystics of many beliefs in different terms, also has a scientific name: information, computation, extropy.

The flow of intangible bits is at the core of the astounding complexity we see in this part of the universe. The trend toward increasing order, diversity and intelligence over time, beginning 14 billion years ago and accelerating now, is driven by the increasing structure of information. It is compressed, computed, layered, and lifted to new levels. This emergent self-organization is an immaterial quality arising from physics that continually gains in the face of increasing entropy.  This long trajectory — from the beginning till now — is the arc of extropy.

[For those who care, portions of this posting were recycled from an earlier Wired article I wrote.]




Comments
  • Tom Foremski

    Why wouldn’t matter be part of extropy? The condensation of energy into matter is a highly ordered event. Atoms have quite complex structures…

    • http://www.kk.org Kevin Kelly

      @Tom Foremski: Yes, I think the condensation of matter was an extropic event.

  • Glyn Moody

    Think about adding 10^6 to 10^9 – 1,000,000 to 1,000,000,000: it’s 1,001,000,000 – 10^6 is a thousand times smaller than 10^9 – which is roughly 10^9. Similarly, if you add 10^20 to 10^29, you get 10^29 plus a billionth of 10^29 – very close to 10^29.

    You could get 10^49 by *multiplying* 10^29 and 10^20, but I don’t see why you’d do that from your discussion.

    • http://www.kk.org Kevin Kelly

      @Glyn Moody: You are right. My error. I will correct the text. Thanks for explaining.

  • Glyn Moody

    Glad to help. It’s a great, thought-provoking series: I look forward to the next installment.

  • Adam

    Great post, one point I’d like to make:

    In his book “The Life of the Cosmos”, physicist Lee Smolin argues that self-organization and extropy are themselves fundamental principles of the physical universe, to the extent that the laws of physics themselves may have developed through a process of self-organization. Just examine the workings of star creation in a spiral galaxy to see how something governed solely by basic physics appears to have a component of self-organized autonomy.

    So while I think your article tends to agree with this for the most part, I have trouble with statements like, “Over billions of years they [extropic systems like life, mind and the technium] gain order, complexity, and their own self-organized autonomy — all things not present in the universe before.” The next wave of discovery in physics and cosmology may show that the universe is itself an extropic system in which order, complexity, and self-organized autonomy have been present since the beginning.

    • http://www.kk.org Kevin Kelly

      @Adam: It is possible Lee is right. It is possible he is wrong. We are no where close to knowing. So for simplicity’s sake, I stick with a single universe.

    • http://www.kk.org Kevin Kelly

      @Adam: Just to clarify. I am speaking of Lee’s idea that self-organization was selected from multiple universes. I do think that extropic trends were present from the beginning (and say so), but the degree of their manifestion was not present before. They are self-created from a seed of self-organization. The seed was there from the beginning.

  • tcrouzet

    You are rewriting Chardin ;-)

  • Clem

    Could not get the “Computational Metaphor” link in this essay to work – but could get to the previous essay from the left side (archive) list.

    • http://www.kk.org Kevin Kelly

      @Clem:Sorry. Fixed it.

  • JoseAngel

    Extremely interesting reading, as always. However, it strikes me as idealistically bent. I mean, you deal with the Universe as if it was “made of” information. But information is only there for someone, not in itself: that is hypothetical, or virtual, or imaginary information. Actual information is usable information, and that’s what the technium is about, multiplying the quantity of usable information. But the information is not “already” there— we only develop systems and procedures that allow us to guess that a further development could lead to even more elaborate informational procedures. Which is a function of our communicative protocols. Another corollary is that all this information is not a “post-biological” process: it is necessarily linked to the biological and social entities that we are.

  • Pierre Rousseau

    Tor Nørretranders coined the term “exformation.” He wrote chapters related to the subject of your essay in The User Illusion. Search “exformation” for a description in Wikipedia.

  • Aaron Davies

    some terminological quibbling:

    where you say “amino acids”, i think you mean “nucleic acids”. amino acids are what make up proteins.

    church-turing (as it’s usually phrased, not “turing-church”, btw) is usually called a thesis, not a conjecture or a theorem, precisely because its terms are mostly undefined. (or rather, it is treated as the definition of its own terms.) (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church–Turing_thesis for more details.)

  • Scarhawk

    When (if?) the universe reaches heat death, all extropy will be erased. Bits exist as patterns in physical material (matter, energy, etc.) whether as a light switch, a transistor, or photon spin. Bits always exist physically in one form or another – they are not entirely free of physics, although the exact physical form they take is free to be anything where two measurably different states exist. Bits are subject to thermodymamics.

    The second law of thermodynamics says that no matter how much we increase order locally, order must decrease at least as much somewhere else. Fortunately for humans we have many more rust particles available to turn into hard drives and plenty of sunlight to use for energy differential in manufacturing them. When the sun runs out of hydrogen, a few billion years from now, this will no longer be possible without moving humans closer to a different star.

  • Steve Jurvetson

    If intelligence is an accumulation of order (in a systematic series of small-scale reversals of entropy), would a non-biological intelligence have an inherent desire for self-preservation (like HAL), or a fundamental desire to strive for increased order (being willing, for example, to recompose its constituent parts into a new machine of higher-order)? Might the machines be selfless?

    (something I wondered on a little blog post, Can friendly AI evolve?)

  • Steve Jurvetson

    Oops, HTML link was lost on that last comment:
    http://jurvetson.blogspot.com/2004/08/can-friendly-ai-evolve.html

  • Mark Essel

    The opportunity cost of missing even a few of your posts is quite severe. However each time I steal the moments to tune into a thought thread, and certainly the brilliant comments, I am relieved.

    Have any of you worked on the analogy between information/life/extropy and the fractal construction and organizational computational forces. Simple seeds produce unfathomably complex organs, and larger galactic systems.

    Also how do we relate the photon to this bit representation of information and life.

    Finally how is our imagination limited by the constraints of extropic expansion, after all it’s rate is not infinitely fast at ordering bits. Can we only imagine so far?

  • Ken Wilson

    This may help:

    Just as you argue genomes carry historic informational content, so you could posit that all information is “historical”. Information is thus the product of the stream of am/am not “decisions” unfolding in the universe; which are not reversible nor erasable even not always visible. Whether this “information” is “just bits” or has “signal” is dependent upon the context in which the decisions unfolded.

    Why does this help? It helps understand that/why/how time has an arrow. It helps explain that/why/how the universe exponentially accumulates “information” (of both kinds. It helps explain why forms of informational organization (biotic, technical, other) that tend to organize the information/impact the “decisions” of the universe around them tend to rapidly drive extropy as they become embodied in (say) nutrient cycles. And if we knew an enormous amount more of the facts we could then start to calculate just how much of the total body of “information” (for which read histories of all interacting “things”) on this little blue-green planet had so far been ordered by the various processes – through to the technium.

    Knowledge of the informational lineage of any “thing” will reveal legacies of both random walk and self-organization the trajectory of which could be rendered as itself a COMPUTATION, albeit generally a hugely complicated one. The structure of the math of that computation will reveal the type/nature of its informational content – which even for “things” we consider highly self-organizing will prove substantially hybrid. (Eg. what’s accumulated in genomes is not only or even mainly ordered information.)

    And on a more mundane note i think you mean nucleic acids not amino acids.

  • Berend Schotanus

    Very interesting! I found the site after my newspaper was covering the TED conference in Amsterdam.

    The concept of “extropy” to summarize evolution, life and technology is very appealing to me as is the paradox between the enormous amounts of information found in extropy versus the relatively simple and containable set of physical laws that appear to be valid in the whole universe.

    What I am missing however is that extropy can only be found in a tiny little corner of the universe: planet Earth (and maybe, when our hopes become true, in some extraterrestrial life which is most probably rare on the scale of the Universe). So while the rules of physics are ubiquitous and while the rules of physics enable the processes that accommodate extropy, extropy is only possible in very specific circumstances.

    For this reason I am quite puzzled why extropy should be explained by quantum physics, especially because Darwin provided such a simple explanation of evolution. Evolution requires:
    - replication
    - variation
    - selection
    That’s it. Just a set of amino acids in liquid water and the process of extropy can go ahead. To me this doesn’t look like a special state of physics, rather a very special/specific/unexpected subset of logics or mathematics.

  • Gaussling

    Wow. I think you’ve gone off the rails a bit in regard to the meaning of entropy. Entropy has units of Joules/Kelvin, or energy per degree of temperature. The connection with the anthropomorphism of disorder is more epiphenomenal. How do you reconcile order/disorder in terms of J/K? Order or disorder results from consumption or release of energy at the level of atoms. In a chemical transformation energy is lost to the environment because solvent molecules may consume reaction energy as they become ordered around a transition state. I don’t see how this connects to information theory. Perhaps you need to find another metaphor because the use you propose doesn’t seem to match the definition of entropy.

  • Ted Erikson

    Great stuff. However, the argument of 0/1 “bits” seems as if it should be multiplied to “4″ since space to be occupied by mass requires 4 “non-colinear points” to be considered. As Buckminster Fuller points out, “unity is plural and as a minimum, 2″. But the reality of mass as being “unity” requires 4 points to define its boundaries. The tetrahedron and the sphere can both be geometrically described by 4 points, but tetrahedrons require straight lines of motion while spheres use circular. Note: the tetrahedron encompasses the least volume for its “area” implying most “reactivity” with environs.

  • Tom Crowl

    Interesting article from Science News today:

    Universe Has More Entropy Than Thought

    ( http://www.sciencenews.org/index/generic/activity/view/id/48010/title/Universe_has_more_entropy_than_thought )

    “New calculations suggest that the cosmos may be a bit closer to heat death.”

    btw… seems to me the definition of entropy there supports organized information as negative entropy as Mr. Kelly’s article points out.

  • Tom Crowl

    Shakespeare seems to have summed physics up pretty well.

    Everything ends up as a “To be or not to be?” situation!

    Whether an elementary particle pops into existence or not is about as iffy as things can get.

    And, of course the same must go for the universe as a whole…

    It’s existence is either a 1 or a 0.

    And we can see the life of the universe as a decision process… a rather extended one by our measure but time issues can get a bit confusing when you play with this stuff.

    In this light extropy can be seen as all us secondhand “computers” scattered around the universe as pieces of the BIG DECISION facing the GREAT COMPUTER about whether to exist or not!

    It seems to be a tough decision but I’m doing what I can.

    Cause if we blow this one… not only will we all be dead… but we’ll never have been alive at all!

    And never take physics any more seriously than the universe does! At least until it’s SURE!

    http://CulturalEngineer.blogspot.com

    P.S. @Steve Jurvetson … if you want selfless non-biological intelligences you’re going to have to make them a part of the family! (I’m trying to have some fun but see my post “Self-Interest vs Altruism – Problems in Scaling the Decision Process” ( http://culturalengineer.blogspot.com/2009/02/self-interest-vs-altruism-problems-in.html ) for a few thoughts as it relates to humans anyway.

  • Tom Crowl

    I’m catching up on posts in a backwards and haphazard way so the following comment is after reading your recent excellent piece on Free Will…

    It seems then to follow that the “spooky (but very appealing) corollary” briefly touched on here also leads to the likelihood that the Universe itself, the “Great Computer” either has, or is an expression of, free will itself?

    Or perhaps the “Free Will” of the universe is more accurately some reflection of the accumulated decisions of its component parts!

    WOW! So then, God isn’t a Monarch… God’s a Co-Op!

    http://www.Chagora.com
    Creating the Next Iteration!

  • Tom Crowl

    I’m catching up on posts in a backwards and haphazard way so the following comment is after reading your recent excellent piece on Free Will…

    It seems then to follow that the “spooky (but very appealing) corollary” briefly touched on here also leads to the likelihood that the Universe itself, the “Great Computer” either has, or is an expression of, free will itself?

    Or perhaps the “Free Will” of the universe is more accurately some reflection of the accumulated decisions of its component parts!

    WOW! So then, God isn’t a Monarch… God’s a Co-Op!

    http://www.Chagora.com
    Creating the Next Iteration!

  • Tom Crowl

    A bit off topic but I know this is also an area of interest to you.

    And also perhaps of relevance to Technium survival on this planet anyway…

    From Edge:
    Comment from George Dyson on “Economics Is Not a Natural Science” By Douglas Rushkoff

    “How to best transcend the current economic mess? Put Jeff Bezos, Pierre Omidyar, Elon Musk, Tim O’Reilly, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Nathan Myhrvold, and Danny Hillis in a room somewhere and don’t let them out until they have framed a new, massively-distributed financial system, founded on sound, open, peer-to-peer principles, from the start. And don’t call it a bank. Launch a new financial medium that is as open, scale-free, universally accessible, self-improving, and non-proprietary as the Internet, and leave the 13th century behind.

    In essence, I agree with the piece and the comment.

    I also believe that the Chagora model is very close to what they are talking about… (it can function with standard and/or newly created currencies whether localized or not. Especially when combined with methods of geographical localization with scaled anonymity.
    The practical microtransaction in all areas is essential for proper scaling of civilization and its the political microtransaction (networked citizen lobbying) that is the trigger.

    P.S. PayPal is a bad model for civilization development.

    (Chagora is essentially scalable speech and association)

    If I’m an idiot I’d like to find out soon since things are very tight. I’d like at least a chance to present my case and don’t know where else to go.

  • Steve Witham

    Dude, an article about extropy without mentioning T.O. Morrow, Max More, _Extropy_ magazine and the extropian movement?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extropy

    Morrow and More loosely defined extropy from the beginning, almost as a pun.

  • Andy Havens

    Very interesting, as are all your essays on the Technium. I do have to disagree on a couple minor points, though.

    First, when you say that, “All things can compute,” and give the example of various binary calculators… I don’t think we agree on what “compute” means. Yes, anything that can be on/off or in one state vs. another can be the matrix for a binary computer. That, however, doesn’t mean that everything “can compute.” To my mind, the definition of “compute” rests more on the intention of the programmer than the “stuff” used to do the counting. My brain can count anything; so what? That’s a reflection of my brain, not my rocks, tinkertoys or electrons.

    That something like what we’d call complex programming can occur in various different simple systems (DNA, for one) is interesting, yes. But I don’t think we need to see zeros-and-ones in every instance of every activity in the universe. If we say that “everything is part of a program,” we then need to come up with another term for what we currently call “programming,” I think.

    Also, at the end you say, “The trend toward increasing order, diversity and intelligence over time, beginning 14 billion years ago and accelerating now, is driven by the increasing structure of information.”

    I’m not sure you can have increasing order and diversity at the same time. Order implies a regular structure; diversity implies different structures.

    I think that information (its storage and use) can be extropic, in some cases, for events on a human-scale. On the other hand, information about destruction (everything from how to start fires to how to build atomic weapons) is going to have net entropic consequences. A pile of ash where once there was a forest or a city is less ordered, from a human’s standpoint, yet it is the result of stored and applied knowledge.

  • Tom Crowl

    Link to the Edge piece: ECONOMICS IS NOT NATURAL SCIENCE [8.11.09]
    By Douglas Rushkoff mentioned above…
    http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/rushkoff09/rushkoff09_index.html

    “Don’t worry about people stealing an idea. If it’s original, you will have to ram it down their throats.”
    – Howard Aiken

  • Glyn Moody

    Fascinating stuff, as ever. Just one thing I don’t quite follow. You write: “The planetary sum of biological plus technological information yields an incomprehensibly large 10^49 bytes”. But you also say the biosphere contains 10^29 bytes, and the Technium 10^20 bytes: adding those together gives 10^29 bytes, which is much less. Where does the rest come from?

    • http://www.kk.org Kevin Kelly

      @Glyn says: “the biosphere contains 10^29 bytes, and the Technium 10^20 bytes: adding those together gives 10^29 bytes”

      I don’t follow your math, or your question. I get 10^49.

  • Ryan

    To what extent does the extropy and tendency towards the immaterial have ramifications upon human existence when considering the human brain to be a computational device? Will the informational orientation render humanity into obsolescence or will we somehow position ourselves into this informational orientation?

  • haig

    A couple quibbles:

    1) You wrote: “In the early universe, only the laws of physics reigned. The rules of chemistry, torque, electrostatic charges and other such reversible forces were all that mattered. There was no other game. Self-organization introduced a new vector into the world.”

    Self-organization was introduced from the beginning, at the big bang, not just when biological life began on earth. Matter self-organizes according to the constraints of particle interactions and, once massive enough, gravity. The difference between life and non-life is evolution by natural selection, not self-organization. (Self-assembly vis a vis autopoiesis is a particular form of self-organization that thus far remains unique to biological life as well.)

    2.) You don’t mention the great, early paper by David Deutsche which formally relates the Church-Turing thesis to physics, ie the Church-Turing-Deutsch principle. ( http://www.scribd.com/doc/17678843/Deutsch-D-The-ChurchTuring-Principle-Universal-Quantum-Computer ) for I believe the first time.

    • http://www.kk.org Kevin Kelly

      @Haig said, “Self-organization was introduced from the beginning, at the big bang, not just when biological life began on earth. Matter self-organizes according to the constraints of particle interactions and, once massive enough, gravity.”

      Yep. That’s what I’ve been saying.

      I didn’t mention David Deutsche’s work in this piece, but I believe I mention him in the Wired piece.

  • Matt Sigl

    All great points here. One quibble. It’s problematic to conceive of information/computation as the fundamental ontological category of the universe as there must be a substance on which the information is computed. “Pure” information is hard to imagine. Some people may want to say space and time are the true ontological primitives. I doubt that as space and time can be so easily expressed computationally/mathematically. If it’s merely the distinction between existence and non-existence that is being represented (0 or 1) it still seems like a legitimate question to ask what exactly it is that is “existing.”

    I think consciousness is the most likely candidate as consciousness is at the core of our concept of “being” (what is it like to BE a bat, etc..) and conscious states are necessarily non-relational and “intrinsic.” Plus the idea that reality fundamentally consists of computational processes being performed on the substance of mind strikes me as both concise, elegant and beautiful. (Which doesn’t mean it’s true but…)

    Also, it’s interesting that the most sophisticated theory of consciousness (certainly the most persuasive) is based on information: Giulio Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory. In every scientific field the primacy of information is being exposed.

  • Jose Cortina

    To
    understand order, first thing to consider is that neguentropy belongs
    exclusively to living organisms that can maintain order, while have life. Ectropy
    is a way of living organisms, for maintain order by cooperating. Syntropy it is
    a more complex cooperation such as bees or termites that survive in complex
    social structure. Extropy refers to human intelligence cooperation, which hopefully
    some day we will be able to configure in the future, when we will be able to
    understand and control ourselves and our society.

    First thing
    is to get define ourselves as living organisms. That it is most relevant of all
    our basic ego pretentions. From that position we will be able to understand
    that we are a part of society, as well as the bees, for survive.

    Order in
    society can improve or decay. Extropy means to understand our basic
    neguentropic  individual situation for to
    wok to increase order in society as a system where we belongs.

    Soo, for
    understand  order you have to consider
    this.           

  • Kai Teorn

    I have attempted to come up a more concrete definition for extropy. It is not, in fact, a direct inverse of entropy, and it is not necessarily “an increase in order” (though often, it is). It seems to be more interesting than that. See here:

    http://kaiteorn.wordpress.com/2013/06/09/on-extropy/