The Technium

Infinite In Some Directions

[Translations: Japanese]

Where are we headed?  Where does technology want to go?

We frequently evaluate a questionable practice by extrapolating it into the future. If a phenomenon continues as it has been, then where does it lead? Where does the daily use of antibiotics on farms get you in 100 years? Where does hourly use of cell phones for everyone get a society in 500 years? If the technium continues another thousand years as is, is it a world we want or not? Indeed can it even continue another 1000 years as is? 

Setting aside the human psychological barriers to future shock and endless cultural shift, are there physical limits to technological development? Is there enough energy, matter, time and space for technology to keep expanding? Or, is technology self-limiting, like a candle flame, that must burn itself out over time?  Are there inherent constraints within the basic thermodynamic laws governing technology that might shape its future?  Is it physically possible for technology to keep accelerating forever?

One way to answer that question is to engage in a thought experiment that considers all technology as a type of computation. While we think of computation as the domain of computers, it is really a formal arrangement of matter and energy that can occur in every substance. Computers have been built with tinkertoys and molecules. In a strict mathematical sense the long helix of DNA “computes” the genetic heredity of chromosome by moving molecules around in the organized logic we call ‘computation.” In fact biochemists have designed bacterial DNA in laboratory test tubes to compute answers to tough computer science problems that are difficult for digital computers to solve. In this computational view, living organisms are just slow computers. So are spiral gas clouds. Everything in the universe, and the universe itself, is invisibly “computing” something at different speeds and scale. The “answer” which each computes is what the system does.

The reason we would like to view stuff through the lens of its computational potential is that pure computation is the most extreme form of energy use per matter that we are aware of. An ideal computer chip (none exists) uses a minimal bit of energy to flip one particle (from one state to another, as in zero to one). That minimal thermodynamic ideal sets the theoretical limit of computation, and also the theoretical limit of how much “technology” can be squeezed from a hunk of the material world. So if the matter and energy on this planet were re-organized as an ideal computer, this planet-scale computer would represent the outer limit of how much technology this planet could produce. Likewise, the thermodynamic limit of computation for the total matter and energy in the universe sets the theoretical limit on how much technology it might hold.

In 1999 Seth Lloyd calculated the theoretical power of the “ultimate laptop” computer. In Lloyd’s theoretical laptop every single atom in the laptop (not just selected parts as in chips today) performs calculations. Each atom of the one-kilo device flips on or off 10^51 times every second. In essence this is the densest computer chip possible. His imaginary chip is the size of a laptop, and its supreme density of one atom/one bit is independent of any specific technological architecture. Lloyd figures the ultimate laptop would deliver 40 orders (that’s a gazillion times) better performance than your present laptop. But it would only take 250 years of uninterrupted technological advance at current rates of improvement (Moore’s Law) to reach that level of computational density. The main problem with the ultimate computer, however, is that its core chip would run at a billion degrees and would be hotter than the sun. In fact, says Lloyd the chip would deliver “a little piece of the Big Bang!” For obvious  consumer design reasons, our technology is unlikely to ever reach its theoretical limits.  But the destination of smaller, hotter, more powerful does suggest one trend that computation  — and technology – will follow. Although we’ll never get to blazing plasma laptops, we’ll head in that direction.

But a similar calculation suggests an opposite trend. Several decades before Lloyd’s paper, the physicist Freeman Dyson ran a parallel thought experiment to calculate the specifications of how far and long technology could expand in the universe. Using similar techniques of extrapolating entropy and energy consumed by technology Dyson determined that the technium could expand  indefinitely if it spread wider, and slowed down. In his famous 1979 paper, “Time Without End,” Dyson calculated that as long as the universe continues to expand, and the background radiation temperature fall, life, and its offspring the technium, will have enough energy to never cease. Surprisingly a technological civilization does not need infinite energy to continuously expand. “The energy resources of a galaxy would be sufficient to support indefinitely a society with a complexity about 10^24 times greater than our own” Dyson wrote. But the price of galactic-scale expansion of technology is that its rate of “computation” slows down. As galaxies stop spinning and stars blink out, the temperature difference between the hottest things in the universe and the coldest background radiation diminishes the free energy available. But if the computation of a society can be spread wider through intergalactic communication, and the cycles of work run slower, then technology, in theory, can keep going forever. Dyson summed up: “Life and intelligence are potentially immortal, with resources of knowledge and memory constantly growing as the temperature of the universe decreases and the reserves of free energy dwindle. And maybe, intelligent beings in different parts of the universe can keep alive forever a network of communication, exchanging their ideas and constantly increasing their circle of acquaintances.” This vision was not a prediction, but a stake to mark the outer limit of what is possible. Dyson’s figures say that an unceasing expansion of the technium is not impossible. So at least for the near future – say the lifespan of our sun – the universe is open to continual technological evolution.


The complexity of the technium (and life) is slowly built up from the continuous fall-down decay of entropy in all things. Technology is a device to concentrate the flow of entropy and waste so that energy and matter can re-order themselves into greater complexity in a narrow range. A modern laptop is powered by a battery, charged by a large generator burning tons of coal fossilized by the compression of billions of photosynthetic solar cell collectors (plants) spending years gathering photons and depositing burnable carbon. This cascade of funnels focuses a steady flow of high difference from the thermonuclear fission of the sun toward sustainable complexity in a microscopic (compared to the sun) device. In fact it takes a wide flow of entropy and energy to support a small amount of complexity. The smaller the initial energy difference (as on a planet far from a star), the shorter the fall, the wider the span of energy capture needed to create additional structure.

But it is important to remember that increasing complexity and the technium can only be a localized thread of light in any otherwise darkening universe. When Freeman Dyson says “I have found a universe growing without limit in richness and complexity, a universe of life surviving forever,” that infinite richness is limited to a minority of space. 

This paradox of the “limited infinity of technology” can be explained this way. Every technological threshold that opens up new possibilities also locks in constraints. Technology settles on operating standards (110 volts AC), communication languages (ASCII), or technical conventions (right turning screw threads), and as long as they work, we retain these constraints. This dynamic began in evolution. Biologically we keep our primeval reptilian brains, billion-year-old Krebs cycles, and often unoptimized archaic proteins. We carry those restraints forward – because they work and are “expensive” to change — which means that certain other potentials will not be reached. While DNA opened up a seemingly limitless number of possible organisms, the bodily forms that DNA can make are neither infinite nor limitless. In the context of the range of all possible body forms in the universe — the astronomical number of ways a kilo of atoms could be arranged — the  number of DNA organisms is very small. Furthermore, from any point in the evolution of a DNA-controlled organism, there is more constraint and less absolute potential that at the previous point of evolution. Every success in life and technology negates potential in the absolute. In effect, novelties enlarge the scope of that which is “impossible.”

In fact, the impossible has been expanding since the big bang. When the very first quantum bits congealed into specific physical particles, their materialization reduced the space of the possible atoms combined from particles, and so confined those unrealized alternative possibilities into the realm of the “impossible.” As soon as physics favored matter over anti-matter, entire portions of absolute anti-matter potential were closed off. As actual atomic elements came to dominate, they generated a particular kind of chemistry that would govern all the rest of matter’s interactions, and therefore confined alternative chemistries to the impossible. When the periodic character of the elements was set in the earliest moments of the universe, the special place of carbon and water were set, too, expanding the what was possible with organic molecules but also increasing the space of the “impossible.”

Each step in the ratcheting sequence of complexity — starting with the creation of atoms, and flowing into systems such as galaxies, stars, life, mind, technology — opens up possibilities in the real, but also simultaneously closes off potential in the absolute. This reduction tends to move innovations along an increasingly narrow path, which can also be understood as the source of inevitabilities. Theoretician Stuart Kauffman puts it this way: “The biosphere, and the universe as a whole, may well be kinetically trapped into an evermore astonishingly small region of the entire space of the possible it might have reached.”

From the perspective of absolute infinite potential – let’s call that God’s view – each innovation in evolution or technology reduces the choices of what can be made next. Actual possibilities in the absolute are shrinking. The more complex we make our technologies, the more constraints we introduce on what we can invent next. But from the perspective of the technium itself – let’s call that selfish technology’s view – each innovation we create makes it easier to make another idea, and the more complexity we introduce the more room technology can expand into. Measured from the beginning of no-technology, the space of possible technologies is constantly increasing, and that newly manufactured territory is self-created by our previous inventions. From technology’s view, it is expanding, as Freeman Dyson suggest in his book title, “infinite in all directions.” From the absolute’s view, the technium is expanding infinite in some directions.

This duality might be thought of as the “conservation of possibilities.” An innovation in any direction opens up several more possibilities not in reach previously. Over time an organism or an artifact can be pictured as stepping from one adjacent possibility to the next. But at the same time, that movement into adjacent possibilities creates a web of inherent constraints (see Ordained-Becoming) that closes off other possibilities. So, as actual possibility is reached absolute potential is reduced. The more complex an organism or technology, the more restrictive its path becomes, and the more potential forms it ignores. An enabling invention, such as electricity, will open up continents of new ideas now made possible by its discovery, but as these notions take physical form with actual charges, real currents, and specific voltages, they make alternative forms employing electrons in alternative ways harder to reach.

If evolution is like a tree of life, then the original massive trunk of life tapers into complexity as it grows over time; the trunk narrows into branches that taper into twigs that dwindle into branchlets that thin into leaf stems. The longer the evolutionary tree grows, the thinner the tapers of the twigs, until they become hairs of infinite thinness. The fine twigs in this picture are specific organisms or technologies. Yet at the same time, the branches of evolution are ever splitting, reticulating, fanning out in dendritic variation, so that the mass of these infinitely thin lines fill out the space in one fashion, becoming an infinite tangled web.


David Hilllis’ Tree of Life map.

Technology  of a particular time can not make all possible things that could exist. Its power is hampered by its previous history and the established standards that run it. In the realm of “what could be” the technium can only populate a relative small region of possibilities. There may be, for instance, esoteric technologies that require a belief in spiritual beings to achieve, a belief our modern science no longer holds. This blockage would prevent the technium from crossing the series of adjacent steps needed to reach such spiritual technologies. Perhaps “unreachable” technologies require an unusual combination of adjacent technologies that are unlikely to exist on the same world at one time.

Yet the technium differs from biological evolution in this key way: minds can jump over adjacent possibilities to inhabit distant possibilities unlike anything near by. For nearly 4 billion years life has had to transverse possibilities step by step, never looking ahead, never jumping beyond the next viable form. An organism born with genes was bound by the heavy constraints inherent in DNA and homeobox genes and developmental history. The greater the complexity of the living creature, the more it was bound in the choice of its next possibilities.

The evolution of minds changed all this. A mind can imagine possibilities far removed from the next adjacent evolutionary step. A being with a mind, even a DNA-based mind, can steer evolution with more choice. The mind, through its body of technology, is a freedom-making instrument. Imagine a planet where life evolved for 8 billion years, twice as long as it has on earth. In that time life on that planet may have produced a hundred million more varieties of fantastic creatures than are found on Earth. This exuberance of life might include organisms creatively inhabiting niches unknown on this planet – perhaps warm-blooded plants, or nest builders who construct city-scale skyscrapers, or lighter-than-air blimp creatures — and maybe hundreds of thousands different kinds of very smart animals. But if none of them were to develop an imagination able to deliberately jump to distant possibilities, or to return to possibilities from the past, then that entire brimming world would be confined to the inherencies in its biology. It would be a world without technology and with limited free will. “The tyranny of genes has lasted for 3 billion years and has only been precariously overthrown in the last hundred thousand years by a single species, Homo sapiens. We have overthrown the tyranny by inventing symbolic language and culture… We have stolen back from our genes the freedom to make choices and to make mistakes,” writes Freeman Dyson.

Free will is expanded by complexity. A primeval cell gains more choices in its behavior than simpler organelles do. An organism with light sensors and wagging flagellate for motion has more options for behavior than a primeval cell. A giraffe has more degrees of freedom than bamboo. The more parts, highly structured, the more ways a system can fail, or vary. The more variation, the greater freedom of choices.

Everything in the universe has some degree of free will. Even quantum particles. An elemental particle “decides” which way to spin. A cosmic ray decides when to decay. Not consciously, but choose they do. Mathematician John Conway, inventor of a cellular automata demonstration known as the Game of Life, and others scientists including Freeman Dyson, argue that you can’t explain the spin or decay of particles by anything less than small doses of free will. In a 2009 paper Conway co-authored called The Strong Free Will Theorem he says if “we humans have free will, then elementary particles already have their own small share of this valuable commodity… Indeed, it is natural to suppose that this [particle] freedom is the ultimate explanation of our own.” Conway then frames an elaborate mathematical proof to establish that the decisions of a particle can neither be explained by randomness nor are they deterministic, so free will choice is the only option left. If sub atomic particles have free will, then everything assembled from a mass of them must as well.

Evolution compiles complexity which increases the freewill of matter. The elementary free will in the smallest quantum particle is amplified by the increasing options of behavioral choice in evolved creatures. A flat worm choosing to move toward food was something new in the universe, a level of choice never seen in the inert world of chemistry. The arc of increasing complexity is thus the story of an increasing manifestation of free will. Technology’s arrival upped the degree of free will to a new and game changing level. A self-conscious mind could use the tools of technology to fiddle with its source code, reprogram its genes, extend its phenotype, transfer its substrate, and in essence rewrite its history. Self-consciousness also illuminated the fact that it had a free will to conjure with.

As we accelerate technological development we accelerate new ways to manifest free will. A major consequence of creating cheap and ubiquitous artificial minds would be to infuse higher levels of free will into our built environment. Of course we’d endow  robots with minds, but we would also implant cars, chairs, doors, shoes, and  books with slivers of choice-making intelligence. We would be unleashing inanimate objects from their shackles of hereditary inertness and “stealing back their freedom to make mistakes,” just as humanity did for itself. Since it is probable that a superorganism-scale intelligence will emerge from the global internet (see Evidence of a Global SuperOrganism), the scale and pattern of free will and freedom embedded in a global superorganism will be new for this planet. It/we will be able to make mistakes of a new type.

Even without the benefit of a global intelligence, we’ll use technology to learn how to make new kinds of mistakes. In fact asking ourselves how humanity might make entirely new kinds of mistakes is probably the best metric we have for discovering new possibilities of choice and freedom. Engineering our genome is primed to make a new kind of mistake, and therefore indicates a new level of free will. Geo-engineering the planet’s climate might also indicate a new arena of choice. Also, connecting every person to every other person alive in real time via cell phone or wires also unleashes new powers of choice and potential for mistakes.

We wrested our destiny back from genes and are now acquiring powers to remake ourselves at will. But the lessons of evolution and the technium remind us that we cannot be everything, nor anything we choose. There are limits to our future course. The technium is constrained by many factors. Because of inherent biases in the system we can’t make everything we can think of, and we probably can’t think of everything possible. The more complexity we manufacture, the more we bind our technological path in certain directions. For every enabling technology we invent in order to open up new horizons of novelty, we simultaneously close off other avenues of novelty from our reach. The long-term path of technology is guided in some sense by inherencies and inevitabilities buried deep in the nature (and our particular history) of the technium and evolution. To a remarkable degree, what happens in the technium is preordained.

But to an equally remarkable degree, technology is ever increasing the power of free will and choice. We have more power now, and will have more in the future as we invent more ideas, to determine own future course. But because of the nature of complexity and the complexity of nature we don’t have full choice to be anything at all. As I hope I showed, both in the short term and in the very long term, evolution, life, and mind are constrained and limited even as our choices expand.

Freeman Dyson has written more about the long-term trends in mind and technology than anyone else, so I will quote from him again: “No matter how far we go into the future there will always be new things happening, new information coming in, new worlds to explore, a constantly expanding domain of life, consciousness and memory.”  I agree with Dyson that the universe is inherently optimistic. But I think Dyson is wrong in claiming that mind is infinite in all directions.

Life and mind tend to expand in certain directions. That is why the perception of progress is more visible now than earlier in history – because the constraints and closing off of possibilities channel where we are going, and give articulation to our movement.  We are headed toward increased degrees of freedom, greater manifestation of free will, more choices (but in a limited range), greater specialization, more evolvability – all particular, specific directions out of a gazillion potential ones (which are no longer open). If I am in right then in the future we will have a greater of a sense of progress because our path will be even more articulated, more specific. In the image of the ever-thinning branches on the tree of options, our futures become more narrow as they also expand in volume. This is the duality we are headed towards: The technium is infinite in some directions.


© 2023