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On the disposition of the universe

While the political situation seems dire at the moment, further posts on that subject are pending when we finally gain some clarity on the subject, I have another post that needs to be written.

Douglas Hofstadter used the form of a dialogue as an accessible way to dramatize or explore important subjects, I have picked up that format myself in a few of my writings. Over the next few days I will be writing one of these dialogues regarding the future of civilization as it spreads through the universe.

The I also want to give credit to the work of Isaac Arthur on his youtube channel and a somewhat reserved endorsement of the game Stellaris, as flawed as it is, for its attempt to allow the player to design a civilization and watch how it evolves as it gains new technological capabilities and interracts with other civilizations.

My characters:

Achilles: Achilles is Achilles! There is none other! How have you not heard the name Achilles? Achilles will be presenting a classic/conservative vision of human expansion.

The Borg: My sanitized version of my own vision that tries to present a coherent philosophy where radical self-transormation is great but just because something is mathematically equivalent doesn’t mean it is automatically sound reasoning.

Observer uses the persona from the classic show MST3K that poked fun at decidedly less classic sci-fi movies. His role is to try to distill and represent the psychotic rants… er… ideas of mind uploading advocates as they have been presented to me over the years.

Unfortunately, Uploaders get kinda … squirly when pressed on certain issues and questions, in which case I make my best guess as to what they actually meant.

Finally, the Tortoise is a referee type charactor who behaves like a judge or a supreme court justice but has no powers or authority or faction. His attitude is that ideas can only be called good after they have been challenged rigorously and that a good future is built on good ideas so therefore challenges all ideas as well as he can.

Achilles had found an asteroid that had a fantasticly good vantage point over the new galaxy he had just arrived at. He had decided to stop here to do some photo shoots of himself waving a tattered Spartan standard and raising his sword to celebrate the conquest of yet another galaxy. His ship was a million ton monstrosity that had been pushed hundreds of times further than the lifespan of any other ship, still retaining its proud profile but now composed mostly of dented iron and fatigued steel. His crew was making use of the stop-over to frantically make repairs to the old wreck of a ship that were too dangerous to attept when the ship was in FTL.

The photographer unexpectedly stopped and looked up from the camera. Achiles was like whaaa? He looked around and saw an infinite stack of turtles approaching. It arrived and the top one stepped off, the others left.

Achilles: Wherever I go in this universe, I keep running into you.

Tortoise: I get around. Whatup?

Achilles: Same old, new galaxy; new colonies.

Tortoise: That’s what you said the last time we had this conversation.

Achilles: Probably, so?

Tortoise: But you already built colonies.

Achilles: Well I haven’t built any here yet, so therefore I need to build some. It’s what you do. You go to a new land, and you build colonies. Any lifeform that you are likely to encounter does the same thing.

Achilles was going to continue to describe how beautifully organized his colonies were when another ship of some sort approached. It was sleek and compact. Maybe 100,000 ton class with more modern engines than on Achilles’ ship.

The new vessel approached the asteroid and expertly piloted up to within inches of the rock. It seemed to just sit there for a while. There was no obvious hatch or anything. After a few minutes, the head and torso of a busty woman seemed to grow out of the top of the thing.

The borg: Hey guys, this is a pretty awesome rock you found, I don’t need to separate or spawn an avatar to have a chat here.

Achilles: What exactly are you?

The borg: A cyborg, you are familiar with the concept right? I’m an organism composed of organic and mechanical parts. Instead of living as a human aboard a starship, I decided to simplify things and simply become the starship. In my case, I’m actually composed of about ten thousand humanoid cyborgs merged into a single lifeform.

Achilles: Egads!

The Borg: -- I find the lifestyle pleasant enough. I also have a number of advantages, over a ship like yours. For one thing, I don’t require large crew compartments or living spaces, and all of the structural materials and equipment required to support individuals. So therefore I can carry a great deal more people or individual-scale subunits with less material. How many people are on that relic of yours?

Achilles looked at his ship for a moment: Yeah, I’m only carrying a crew of 3,200 at the moment. Intergalactic travel is extremely demanding so I had to reconfigure the living compartments to be acceptably comfortable for the duration of the journey, also managing consumables was quite a challenge. For a military op that only lasts a few weeks we can sleep in shifts and the ship can transport about 22,000 marines. Normally the ship has living quarters for about 5,100 but, again, it was a long and difficult trip.

Tortoise (to the borg): Now that you have arrived in this galaxy, what are your plans?

The borg: I was thinking of setting up some bases here and there for my own convenience. Mainly I’m looking for cool things to explore, possibly even some indigenous life and civilizations. Because I don’t have any specific problems or strategic needs, I’m basically free to goof off with the universe and just do whatever sillyness I feel like building here and there.

Tortoise: I couldn’t help but notice you were using singular pronouns.

The Borg: It’s a convention mostly. Keeps things simple. As you see, my race has a very fluid concept of individuality. As I’ve been living in this form for quite a while now, I’ve kind of evolved a main personality while sub-units of my being still operate with a moderate degree of autonomy. As what are essentilaly neural connections exist throughout me, I can allocate brain power in an ad-hoc way. I suppose on a ship like Achilles’ the choices for assigning talent to different departments is a bit more constrained and depends quite a bit on the ability of officers to identify those talented individuals. Despite his best efforts, I’m certain that quite a few people in his crew are overworked while quite a bit of tallent and experience is under-utilized because an individual must be assigned to one department or another even if he has valuable experience in several.

Achilles: Yeah, that is how it is in human societies.

The Borg: The point is that I don’t think you have really evaluated the present situation enough. While you are free to honor your traditions as you like, you must acknowledge that your traditions are an adaptation to the form of life that evolved on your planet. Now that new forms of life are possible, it is also possible to create new traditions that take advantage of those new forms of life.

Observer: Well said! Now if all you primitive fleshy beings could realize that the era of flesh is over and accept that the future is virtual.

Achiles: When did you get here?

Observer: Oh, I arrived a few minutes ago. [gestures to a minivan sized space probe of some sort…] I had to fabricate an avatar from the materials in this planetoid. It’s really inefficient, it would be so much better and quicker to have this conversation in a VR environment accelerated 1,000x normal time.

Tortoise: Having slow, thoughtful conversations are a wonderful way to pass the time, besides slow and thoughtful is kinda my style.

Achilles: This is where the conversation is happening. Deal with it.

The Borg: How many mind files do you have in that device of yours?

Observer: Unlike you primitive fleshy beings, an emulated mind takes very little space at all. Our ship has over a hundred thousand citizens, representing over 1,300 copy clans active concurrently.

Tortoise: So now that you are here, what are your plans for this galaxy?

Observer: Well this chunk of dumb matter will be upgraded to smart matter within a few centuries.

Achilles, not understanding at all: So will this smart matter help me build my colonies?

Observer: But ofcourse! Once all of this galaxy has been recorded and simulated, you will be able to instantiate it thousands of times and colonize each one.

Achilles: If I wanted to play a video game, I would have stayed home. I’m here to actually build colonies.

Observer: And you will! we will emulate your mind so that you think you are building colonies and you will and you will enjoy it just as if we had done nothing at all.

Achilles: Do I look like a slave to you? I am Achilles! I am the master of myself, my ship, and all that I am able to reach by using my ship. You want to reduce me to a slave to your delusion.

Observer: Once you are uploaded you won’t even know the difference and you will be free to do anything you want.

Tortoise and the Borg seemed to be having a bit of trouble with that statement, Achilles responded: You don’t understand freedom at all. Here, I have planted my flag on this rock here. I have claimed it as my own personal property. Will you honor that claim by allowing me to use it or not use it in any manner I chose?

Observer: Ofcourse! Once it is scanned, you can spawn as many copies of it as you wish and do anything to those copies.

Achilles: But can I let it sit as it is today and simply enjoy the right of owning it?

Observer: The mode of existance you are accustomed to is now obsolete. Clearly the nano swarm is the ultimate form of life so therefore the best we can hope to do is be a simulant within the computronium it produces.

The Borg: But what kind of existance is that? All life forms in this universe require a physical basis. You first create an artifical substrate and then assert that a block of memory within that substrate constitutes an individual that is conscious whenever the right computations are performed on that block of memory. The freedoms that you claim are indistinguishable from any other mind simply imagining something. The externalization of the imagined thing from the personality file is inconsequential because none of them have access to baseline reality. While the internal politics of your system is more than a bit obscure, it is safe to say that it is probabably ruled by a tiny oligarchy that has any access to the outside. It is also fairly clear that your expansion front is essentially uncontrolled. You rationalize it destroying the universe and any species that may be out there by the mindless assertion that virtual ‘existance’ is somehow better.

Observer: We now live in a universe where nano-swarms will overpower any other form of life. The only way we can still be human is to live in simulation.

Achilles: Just who’s fault is that, your protestations to the contrary, these nano swarms are not a life form, they are artifical. You made them.

Observer: It’s better to be the culprit than the victim.

Achilles: I’d much rather not be involved. [looks around, dramatically] I don’t see very many culprits in this galaxy.

Observer: I think it is more important that sophonts in the computronium are basically invulnerable to any threat.

The Borg: Realy? It took quite a bit of work to develop a planetary shield but if you manage to survive your expansion front, there is basically no security measures behind the expansion front and basically anthing you want can be isolated and mined. Agents can be sent into the virtual space to adjust a few records and it is basically safe. That is how my race survives. The problem is that I’d much rather live in the wild universe it is so much more fun.

Observer: WHAT!?!?!?!?!?!

The Borg: Gotta pay attention to baseline reality. We need to survive so therefore we found a way. We have a stronger claim to protecting our existance in this manner than you do in bulldozing everything in the way you are. Still, it’s a tenuous existance and the habitable bubbles we have been creating in this way are essentially prison cells. I’d much prefer to enjoy this galaxy as it is rather than let it get paved over like so many others.

Tortoise, to the borg: That’s fascinating, we have only heard from what are essentially PR representatives about what happens inside the computranium, what do your agents report?

The Borg: Well, at first the simulation was nonsensical in that it emulated huge numbers of baseline personalities in what ammounted to billions of tract houses. As you see I am a well integrated lifeform, and quite alien in a number of respects. In the computronium there is no attept to integrate or evolve in any way as a lifeform in the universe, instead the simulated personalities are expected to pretend the VR space is their only reality. But the VR space is not a reality and presents extremely little in the way of a framework that would drive anything resembling a civilization. So the society fell into hedonism very quickly and split into tribes based on prefered likes and disgusts. Over time society has further split into a matrix of tribes based on all dimensions of psychological differentiation, that being the only constant. These tribes have very little to focus their attention except to feud with other tribes. Ban-walls have been erected between these tribes where each sophant has very little space within which to operate. Furthermore, even though the baseline mind has been augmented to some degree the basic framework of the human mind has been preserved and has proven to be a cripling limitation to how far each mind can evolve and what it can do. It baffles me as to why they continue their program of expansion at such a terrifying rate when what they are creating is so clearly moribund and hellacious.

Achilles: Heh. Still, you have to admit that there is a great deal of hedonism in your borg race too.

The Borg: Definitely granted, but then I came here. It is exactly as an individual has a life both in and out of the bedroom. What’s with that bohemian ship of yours anyway?

Achilles: I like its style, but more seriously, it’s designed to resist electronic warfare attacks [glancing at Observer…] and can maintain a high level of combat readiness with absolute minimal computer involvement. I think there a handful of 8085 microcontrollers in the propulsion system, none are networked. Their programs are stored in ROM and have only a few bytes of RAM so they literally do not have the capacity to run any kind of malicious code. Where it was feasible to use classic electronics, that was the solution.

Tortoise to achilles: So tell us more about these colonies you want to build. Doesn’t deploying the same colony everywhere again and again get old like tiling the same set of uploaded minds gets old?

Achilles: Jeez! Don’t make that comparison. Mostly the colony pattern I build is based on what my ship is set up to manufacture. We tweak the design every now and then but the point is that each colony is a new, unique beginning. Once founded, ecah colony is free to develop, adapt, and evolve in any way whatsoever. I do sometimes go back to maintain colonies I’ve set up before but mostly I’m hands off. I have had to destroy a few of them when they fell to communism and/or satanism. I find that colonies on idylic worlds are most likely to go that route while colonies on harsher but not quite dangerous worlds are the most likely to suceed well. So if the world is too harsh, the colony will simply fail but if it is too much of a paradise the colony falls to communism.

[running out of time to work on this post, may ammend it later based on feedback. ]

[Problem, If Achilles had pressed Observer about his older colonies and Observer would have to admit to have already destroying them, it would degenerate to a raw battle between the two and it would have been impossible to regain the tone, so I had to ignore that so I could remain in thougtful mode…]


Suddenly besides the ships and the asteroid two hollow rings appeared that started to fill up with color. When they were filled, contours of a sphere and a dragon appeared. After a few seconds the sphere turned into a colorful wringing ball of interweaving strings of light, and the dragon shape turned out to be a white dragon that somehow appeared to be able to survive and fly in space.

Dragon: Greetings, we come from another dimension, sorry for intruding.

Sphere: If you find this injection too disturbing, feel free to delete your memories of it. We can assist, if you like.

Dragon to Sphere: Ok, what is my mission here? Conflict resolution? Party hosting? Adventuring? Exploration?

Sphere to Dragon: Conflict resolution, and keep all communication on a publicly audible channel.

Dragon: Ah, but that’s embarrassing!

Sphere: You know what you signed up to.

Dragon: I assume I can admit that we snooped on their conversation already?

Sphere: Yeah, just claim that we used some form of quantum entanglement reconstruction technology. It’s not too implausible.

Dragon: Great, now they must assume that we’ve used something more advanced.

Sphere: You started with your lack of subtlety. I’m not here to cover for you. As your mentor I merely point out your errors and make you acutely aware of them.

Dragon: sigh Yeah, that’s what I deserve for being impatient.

Dragon to the others: Anyway, you seem to benefit from assistance regarding the optimal utilization of this unpopulated galaxy. I understand that you haven’t arrived at a synergistic solution that respects the preferences of all involved parties, yet. Let’s start with a simple proposal. Achilles and Observer get ownership of two thirds of all planetary bodies in this galaxy. Achilles gets their surface and Observer their cores. The surface can be used for beautiful colonies and the cores can be used as substrate for simulating all kinds of desired worlds. The rest of the galaxy is designated a sanctuary for the Borg to explore. The sanctuary can be populated by artificial life and cultures designed by Achilles and Observer. This agreement is enforced by a common arbitration body. We can help you with the know-how on how to set that up in a way that is effective and safe. Any objections?

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Achilles: I don’t design colonies, I seed colonies. The best approach is to plant colonies several hundred lightyears apart so that they have several hundred years to develop space flight and begin to contact each other to form federations. I’m not trying to create an empire or even a nation. Though the fact that my ship contains records of several thousand colonies does give me a significant strategic advantage.

Observer: Perish the thought! How could you expect me to ignore so much dumb matter? Obviously all matter must be deconstructed and turned into dyson shells!


Dragon: Let me suggest a compromise: A process we call “smartification”. It’s a process in which so called ‘dumb matter’ is replaced with functionally identical matter that’s enhanced with computation and communication capabilities. Rocks turn into computronium while being indistinguishable from regular rocks. Cells turn into cybernetic cells that behave like regular biological cells, but use reversible quantum computation to simulate all kinds of things in the background. So, Observer can make the galaxy smart, while Achilles’ plans to seed colonies can proceed undisturbed.

Sphere: You are free to specify your desired method of acquiring that technology from us, or you can develop it on your own. I would suggest the latter. It’s an interesting exercise you wouldn’t want to miss.