The Technium

The Paradox of Up-Creation

Of all things made, there is one creation most paradoxical: the pot that outshines its maker – that is, the creation which exceeds its creator. Such a marvel seems logically impossible. How can matter unleash matter, or mind unleash mind, more powerful than itself? Where does that new genius come from? If we are to make intelligences greater than ourselves, where will their intelligence come from? Surely their smartness can’t come from our relative dumbness, right?

Most creations lack the full capabilities of their maker. Puppets can’t breath, statues don’t reproduce, paintings don’t grow. Most of our attempts to make versions of ourselves are inferior in many ways. Sadly, our dolls dwell beneath us. Indeed to be a puppet of someone is a fierce insult. This downward “leakage” has bred an image of creative degradation; that the act of creation somehow reduces the genius of the creator as it is poured into a lesser vessel. That the second must be less than the first feels intuitive.


Of course in practice, it is not uncommon for the second to exceed the first. How many great men were greater than their fathers? We often find characters in novels that will outlive their authors by centuries, sometimes achieving immortality – a power their creators never came close to performing. We have invented machines that can run faster than we do, devices that jump higher, see further, dive deeper, and calculate quicker than we could ever hope. Everyday school kids use human-created calculators that are thousands of times better in arithmetic than they will ever be. And we hardly notice this inversion.

However the process by which one thing births another superior to itself goes largely unexamined. There is something incredibly weird about it. For instance life on this planet forms an endless thread of creation stretching into the deep past. The very first bit of life, that first little cell 4 billion years ago, divided into two cells, and they into four more, and so on. Every single creature alive today, including you and me, can trace our life back through an unbroken series of ancestors. Not a single one of my ancestors died before creating its replacement, and this refrain can be re-sung a million times. But each offspring was more than a mere replacement. After billions of re-making cycles, the cells gradually accumulated more powers and abilities. Each generation was a tiny bit “more” than the previous. Seen from the distance of 4 billion years, the armadillo born today is vastly superior to the dim, blind, one-cell bacteria that was its ancestor so long ago.

Where does this suite of additional power, or ability coming from? There seem to be only two options and neither one is very satisfactory. One is that the additional something comes from nothing. For instance, the intelligence we find in human minds was manufactured by evolution out of energy and time. Intelligence is a genuinely new power under the sun. It was created by something lesser — a very dumb process governed by the single yes/no of death (what we call natural selection). In other words, as evolution, which is not very smart, created something very smart (our minds), it was creating something beyond itself. Evolution gave (and gives) its creation some power it did not have itself. I call this “up-creation.” It is a miraculous bootstrapping, a sky-hook that allows one to pull oneself up into greater power by tugging one’s beginnings. We can talk about how this happens (mutation, selection, survival and inheritance) but not why it happens. Evolution and life are a very curious system in that their extropy can extract the greater from the smaller. We have to agree that this achievement of is quite amazing, and counterintuitive. However the fact that up-creation happens is not a very good explanation of what drives it to create.


The other view of this paradox is that the intelligence we witness in our selves was somehow embedded into the intelligence of the universe. One variant of that perspective (but not the only one) is Intelligent Design, which claims that the intelligence we see is a manifestation of a deeper, invisible intelligence hard-wired into the physical core of energy and matter. Our intelligence, and presumably any other created intelligence, piggyback off the One Great Intelligence behind the system. When small things (like cells) produce greater things (like consciousness), the greater is actually being channeled from an even greater behind it. But Scriptural Creationists and Intelligence Design folks are far from the only ones who take this reflection perspective. Mystics of all stripes and many transcendentalists assign the arrival of minds on the earth to local manifestations of an Over Mind, and likewise reckon natural life to be local manifestations of a Life Source. In this view, the paradox of up-creation is only an illusion, because the greater is not created by the lesser; instead, the greater leaks out of the Greatest, and obeys the law of creative diminishment, being less that what made it.

The latter view, regrettably, is not going to help us program artificial intelligences. Take the relative simple problem of creating a machine intelligence that can beat the world champion chess master. By definition, this AI program has to be smarter at chess than any human. In order to beat the reigning chess master it must play chess better than any of its programmers (who are not chess masters)! How can humans make a chess player smarter than humans?

For a long while many people believed this up-creation would be impossible. Chess was perceived as a pinnacle of human intelligence; merely matching human intelligence would be a challenge; Beating it would be unlikely, especially since no one – chess masters included – understood how humans really played chess. At least not enough to play better than the best human player! The many failures of early chess playing machines (the first one in 1769 was a hoax) served as a warning, and lead many experts and lay people to assume that up-creation of any sort was impossible. There were many reasons why this was a reasonable assumption.

This particular up-creation — of a mind creating a mind superior to it – requires a certain threshold density of mind. We don’t need much argument that the mind of a frog will not be capable of inventing a mind greater than itself. Whatever neuronal intelligence and fraction of self-awareness a frog has – and it certainly has some portion – it is insufficient for its own mind to invent up a software program that can guide a frog-like head to suck out flies, or to play chess. We don’t know for absolutely sure, but even a chimp’s mind is probably incapable of up-creating a mind.

But we assume, with much hubris and without any proof, that the human mind (collectively) possesses the critical level of intelligence to up-create a superior mind. Simply because we can vaguely imagine a mind greater than ourselves (although so far we haven’t imagined in any detail how it is greater) we believe we can create it. We conflate the fact we can imagine it (which is a huge feat in relative terms) as equivalent to the expectation that we can create it.

The actual evidence of up-creation to date, however, is negative and bleak. There is a long list of expensive AI failures, and very little evidence of any successful up-creation. The one glimmer of promise is the defeat of chess master Gary Kasparov by the IBM’s chess playing machine Deep Blue in 1997. However, Kasparov lost the second game primarily because he was shocked (shocked!), disturbed (disturbed!), and finally rattled by his certainty that behind Deep Blue’s spectacular move was a human chess player. Kasparov said the move was so brilliant it could not have been a machine. In other words, it was not an intelligence greater than a human that defeated him, but an intelligence very much like a human.

We may be in for a surprise. It may be that the human mind lacks some special intellectual ingredient necessary to up-create a mind greater than itself. On the cosmic scale of IQ, our up-creating ability may not be much superior to a chimp’s. The only difference may be that we have a more active imagination, and we can picture a level that we can’t reach.

The other prospect, the more optimistic prospect that many technologists believe, is that our minds have crossed the universal threshold for a critical intelligence, and that once this threshold is crossed, all possible minds can be up-created. We up-created the next level of intelligence and that mind can up-create the next, and so on ad infinitum. And so from such a limited mind as ours, all minds are possible.

We have four billion years worth of biological evidence proving the paradox of up-creation is real, and that amazingly great things can issue from lesser things. But we really don’t have a shred of evidence to support the belief that all possible things can be up-created from one particular lower form – us. This a hope we must call an act of faith.


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