The Race to Inner Space: Our Ever Faster, Smaller, Smarter, and Wealthier Future

Seeing, Guiding, and Benefiting from Accelerating Physical and Informational Change

Humanity’s advances to date have been accompanied by great leaps in the density, diversity, and virtuality of our societies, and in the miniaturization and efficiency of our technologies. Among these and other variables determining social progress, two stand out as particularly special. The more our intelligence gains access to “Inner Space,” both to the domain of very small size scales, or Physical Inner Space”, and to the domain of very powerful brain-based and computer-based simulations, or Virtual Inner Space”, the faster we learn to generate major new economic, social, and adaptation benefits for civilization. This “Race to Inner Space” may turn out to be the dominant developmental trend for our species.

The Cosmic Calendar: 13.7 Billion Years of Universal History Depicted Over A Cosmic “Year”. Lovely creative commons image by Wikipedia author Eric Fisk.

As Carl Sagan famously argued in the Cosmic Calendar metaphor of Big History, life on Earth has been engaged in a continual acceleration of structural and functional complexity emergence since its birth 3.8 billion years ago. At the same time, each newly emergent complex system, from stars to cities, from prokaryotes to computers, uses vastly smaller quantities universal space, time, energy, and matter or STEM, per novel information production, computation, or physical transformation, than the system that came before it. We may call this phenomenon STEM efficiency and density increase, or STEM compression, and we can see and measure it in spatial, temporal, energetic, and material terms. Over time, the leading edge systems use ever less of the resources of “Outer Space” to generate ever more novelty, intelligence, and capability in “Inner Space”, an exciting and apparently universal process. If this astonishing trend continues, our and other universal civilizations may eventually reach black hole level computational efficiency and density and transcend our universe, a topic I’ve speculated on in the Transcension hypothesis.

Certainly humanity’s ability to think, act, and shape our world has grown ever faster, more powerful, and more novel since Australopithecus garhi, perhaps our earliest tool-using ancestors, fashioned the first stone tools more than 2.6 million years ago. We are also much more densely associated in our cities, and engaged in far more virtual activity than our ancestors. Since the advent of currency circa 5,000 years ago, human wealth production has also become an increasingly instantaneous and virtual economic process, today involving trillions of dollars in daily foreign exchange and billions in program trading. Though modern economies experience occasional recessions, these grow rapidly shorter with time, and even the worst now last less than one decade, just one seventh the typical human lifespan. Surprisingly, these periodic slowdowns are not even visible on long timescales. The curve to the left, charting GDP per capita in Western Europe from 1000-1999 AD, with data compiled by economist Angus Maddison, shows that global wealth production now grows almost instantaneously fast over the span of a century. Reporting on this in The Economist in 1999, the authors said it “looks less like an inevitable process and more like a single, astonishing event.” In my opinion, this acceleration, just one of several special Inner Space trends in human civilization, clearly does look like it might be an inevitable process, and it is precisely this parochial attitude, this failure of vision and lack of willingness to ask unpopular questions about value creation and technological change, that keeps today’s media from seeing and reporting on accelerating complexity development, and that keeps today’s economic theory ignorant of the inevitable accelerating benefits that come from our investments and actions in Inner Space.

At the same time, as Kevin Kelly notes in What Technology Wants, 2011, the redundancy of our technology and its distributed knowledge systems protects this accelerating planetary process of wealth and knowledge creation better than ever before. While individual nations, regions, companies, and individuals regularly suffer slowdowns and catastrophes, our global system, like an organism with a developing brain and immune system, rebounds from damage faster, stronger and better the more complex it gets. The story of our accelerating resiliency to complexity disruption, however, is even more ignored, ridiculed, and unaccepted today than the story of accelerating change. We need to fix this state of affairs. The longer we ignore planetary processes of collective intelligence and immunity development, the longer our political, economic, technological, and social policies remain unenlightened, ineffective, and focused on the wrong goals. The longer we wait to study these processes with the rigor they deserve, the longer we remain burdened with preventable suffering, living in the flatlands below the knee of the next growth curve of capacity building, intelligence advancement, and wealth creation.

I believe that humanity’s collective intelligence, wealth, and resilience have accelerated for so long because, via STEM compression, we have continually learned how to move our intelligence into ever smaller domains of nanotechnology, or Physical Inner Space, thus escaping resource limits, while at the same time, developing ever smarter simulations, or Virtual Inner Space, so we can “think more” and “act less” in the search for new capabilities and wealth-creating innovations. Today, a growing proportion of our leading innovations happen either at very small scales in physical, chemical, or biotechnological processes, or inside computers and their networks and software. It is only these special systems that use less and less physical resources to produce more and more social value, a process that the futurist Buckminster Fuller called “ephemeralization,” or doing more and more physical transformation (“acting”) and simulation (“thinking”) with less and less space, time, energy, and matter, or STEM. In a very real sense, we are “moving the world” to Inner Space at an accelerating pace, as depicted in the fullerene (“buckyball”) molecule enclosing Earth in the pretty picture to the right by nanoscientist Chris Ewels.

In humanity’s great race to Inner Space, we are on the edge of major new breakthroughs in nanotechnology engineering, and of the web becoming a metaverse, the most intelligent and valuable natural environment on the planet. We may soon see such infotech and machine intelligence advances as a conversational interface (a web that understands us when we talk to it), digital twins (aka “smart agents”, semi-intelligent avatars that can model and represent us), a valuecosm (quantified maps of all our values and goals), and statistical measures of our individual and social progress. These seem likely to be very empowering and democratizing innovations.

These same nanotechnologies and information technologies offer all the leading solutions to today’s greatest global challenges, including cheap energy and CO2 reduction (nanosolar, which doubles global installed base every two years, and halves its cost every ten years, engineered algal biofuels, which for some applications are now the same cost as oil, fuel cells, etc), food (a genetic green revolution), water (nanodesalination, which doubles global installed base every six years, and halves its cost every nine years), reducing poverty, overpopulation, and slums (smart internet, internet TV, online education, science and technology education, entrepreneurship, women’s and civil rights, green cities), reducing crime and terrorism (global transparency and sousveillance) and bioterrorism (immune system aids like DRACO), and building trustable machine intelligences and robots (we may evolve our machines to be trustable, just as we have bred domestic animals to be trustable, without “designing” them). Even human death is in the process of being challenged. For those who die today, one path to further life may be chemical brain preservation at death, followed later by advanced and inexpensive nano and information technology. Every major human problem we see today has one or more Inner Space technical solutions on the horizon.

How do we help more of our leading countries, institutions, corporations, and entrepreneurs to understand and benefit from our civilization’s apparently inevitable race to Inner Space? How do we get this realization to become part of the story of Big History, told to all curious children who seek to understand the universe? As the pace of life speeds up, many people and organizations react with fear and fundamentalism to accelerating change. How do we help them instead to embrace the most humanizing technologies, and to develop a continual learning and evidence-based culture? For how much longer will our political and corporate leaders continue to severely underfund global nanotech? The world’s governments spend just $10B/yr annually on nanotech R&D funding, with the US spending just $2.2B annually, primarily via the National Nanotechnology Initiative. This is just 0.3% (0.003) of our $740B defense budget in 2010. Just 0.06% (0.0006) of our $3.5T in federal spending. Since 2011, China now spends more on nanotech R&D than the US, with just one fifth our GDP. This positions them to start far more of the nanotech jobs of the future. We should be competing much more on that front.

We also seriously underfund global infotech. The US spends almost all of its unclassified investments in infotech R&D through the Networking and Information Technology Research and Development (NITRD) Program. As of 2007, NITRD spending was just $3B/year. You can bet it hasn’t gone up since then, given our recent economic woes. How long until we change our priorities? How many great nano and infotech solutions to our present global problems are we presently ignoring, instead wasting most of our precious time, intelligence, and energy on far slower, cruder, and less inefficient “Outer Space” technologies and strategies? I suspect every nation on Earth, and many companies, spend a good deal less on nanotechnology and information technology education, research, development, strategy, and entrepreneurship than they should, given the continually accelerating returns delivered by these special technologies. I know that nations and companies rarely have good forecasts of accelerating returns in Inner Space to guide their policy, or to time their product development strategy, because I’ve been a scholar this field for ten years now. The world, by and large, is not yet awake to this trend. We are all running a race, but most of us are not yet conscious of it. That needs to change.

Fortunately, some nations, regions, and companies do a much better job promoting technological progress than others. Some prioritize science and technology policy, education, research and development, innovation, and foresight. Some encourage competitions and give scholarships and hiring priority to the most technically proficient, innovative, and entrepreneurial. But few nations give sufficient access to credit and other startup resources for their best technology entrepreneurs, or create fair competition environments to allow both large and small businesses to create new technology products and services. As citizens, we often don’t measure and rank our local, state, and national politicians for their science, technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship credentials, and reward them with our votes. As consumers, we don’t always look for, rate, and buy the smartest and most resource-efficient products and services, as soon as they become available. I believe the best way to improve the world is to recognize where it is going, to Inner Space, and to see the powerful role that each of us can play in building a much faster, smaller, smarter, and wealthier future for all of us.

[This is the abstract of a talk I will give at Global Future 2045 in Moscow, February 2012, to a community of Big History scholars, entrepreneurs, futurists, and transhumanists. Hope to see you there.]

Thoughts? Disagreements? Corrections? Let me know, thanks! [tweetmeme source=”johnmsmart” only_single=false]

The Moral Landscape – A Four Part Review (Part 3)

More thoughts on Sam Harris’s insightful new book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, 2011. I am reading it with two friends.

Would you like to join us?  It would be great to have your comments as well. As we read, we are each identifying key ideas we agree with, and statements where we disagree.

Chapter 2 follows:

The Moral Landscape, Chapter 2 – Good and Evil

Agreements (and my rewording/additions in italics):

Harris is an Ethical Naturalist. Some ethical statements are true, and derive from real physical aspects of the universe. Harris is also a Utilitarian. Striving to maximize the overall good, create the greatest good for the greatest number. Harris is also a Consequentialist. The consequences of one’s conduct, actual or potential, are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness of that conduct. Thus Harris (and many of us) can self-describe our morality as Naturalist Utilitarian Consequentialist. Now doesn’t make you feel better? 🙂

Religious believers who seek to justify thoughts or behaviors based on consequences which do not or cannot occur in our natural world can easily be immoral.  

We may have theistic beliefs, but those beliefs should always be consistent with and constrained by natural-world consequences, potential and actual. Supernatural consequentialism, to the extent that it conflicts with natural-world consequences, can easily become immoral. It gives us the wrong priorities, or causes us to lose sight of the real consequences that matter, in favor of imagined consequences that are both untestable and wrong. Examples: Christian theism that sometimes devalues science and natural and social progress in the physical world, or which diverts or constrains our feeble and finite cognitive resources to fundamentalist thought or behavior, or to converting others to nonadaptive beliefs. Islamic theism that sometimes legitimates religious violence, etc.

The moment we accept there are right and wrong answers on questions of well being and progress, we accept there are many who are wrong about their answers. It is often difficult to determine the net long-term moral consequences of an event, a problem philosopher Dan Dennett calls the Three Mile Island Effect. We do our best anyway.

We value total well being and progress over the average well being or progress of all. We may sacrifice ourselves to improve total well being or progress, ideally both.

In some domains, as in our valuing of family and subgroups, or of monogamy (or other limitations on polygamy) over open relationships, we want a bias toward the well being or progress of the subgroup.  In other areas we want equality of treatment, opportunity, and access, or a lack of bias, as much as is practical. Whether we want bias or not depends on the total consequences, for well being and progress, of the value preference.

Calculations of fairness drive reward related activity in the brain, according to neuroimaging and behavioral economics. Our brain is a fairness computing and emoting machine.

Kant’s Categorical Imperative: Act always in a manner that you hope is consistent with universal law.

Jonathan Haidt: We make moral judgments intuitively and emotionally. Our reasoning is usually post hoc (constructed after the fact), and has limited ability to change our intuitive-emotional judgments. Amen.

Genuine altruism, benefiting others without reciprocation, includes altruistic punishment, the sacrifice of self to punish norm violators, with personal harm incurred in the process.

Altruistic punishment is both a powerful and a dangerous concept. If we were individually more courageous, more willing to sacrifice ourselves to punish norm violators (for example more of the 90% willing to go to jail to thwart or block unfair actions by powerful corporations, the ultrawealthy, the government, and other members of the top 10%), we could have much better society, but if this were done poorly, we could also easily have a much more violent and complexity-poorer society. The morality of a contemplated altruistic punishment strategy depends on the consequences to society. This in turn depends on the context, intelligence and proportionality of the behavior. As with Democracy, which could not flourish as a beneficial form of governance until societies had literacy and mass communications, mass scale altruistic punishment (sacrifice of individual freedoms, wealth, etc. in order to punish the transgressions of much more powerful groups) may only become a generally net positive development once we have cybertwins guiding our democratic activities post 2020, intelligently channeling us into more effective mass activism, such as sitdowns, strikes, boycotts, purchases of true competitors products, strategies that will bring negative consequences and shame to the 10%, and other forms of civil disobedience. There are some great scenarios and stories to be written here!

Consciousness expands choice, so it is an evolutionary good. The more consciousness we have, the more proactive choices we have as to how to decide a thought or behavior (logic, emotion, random chemical oscillators, coin flips, horoscope, etc.) That is what free will is. Freedom is conscious awareness of and increased control over cognitive choice. Like consciousness, it is variable and transient, but freedom is no illusion!


Pat Churchland: “No one knows how to compare the headache of 5 million against the broken legs of two.”

Disagree. We make economic estimates for these all the time. Actuarial science, insurance, risk mgmt are big industries, in fact, and increasingly quantitative.

Paul Slovic, in Psychic Numbing, has shown we are more distressed by violence to single individuals than to large populations. We grow numb as numbers rise.

Harris finds this illogical, but it seems quite logical for those who believe their ability to influence or control environmental outcomes decreases as the number of actors rise. We steadily lose hope and empathy as numbers rise, and this seems a reasonable way to view the world. We pick fights that we think we can win. As long as our hope and empathy remain strong in systems of smaller numbers, we can continue to move the system forward. 

Derek Parfit’s “Repugnant Conclusion” for using total well-being as your standard of value: hundreds of billions of barely surviving can be preferable to 7 billion happy. Average well being can prevent even worse problems.

But if we value well being and progress together, the “logic problem” of Parfit’s model falls away. Total well being and progress are what seem most useful to care about, not average (we also care about the distribution of the total, or the social divide, a topic you haven’t mentioned). There are also inescapable real-world tradeoffs between these values. More of us choosing individually to sacrifice in certain ways can often get us total progress faster, and we can be sold on and willing to test such strategies.

Loss aversion (cognitive bias). We are more averse to real losses than real forsaken gains. So we preserve the status quo more than risk.

Harris questions the value of this, but to me this also sounds like prudence, a strategy likely to be generally adaptive. Part of our psychology is seems to be set up to seek progress, and part to appreciate what we have (think of Type A and Type B personalities). In my own head, when I have a forsaken gain, I remind myself of how lucky I am, and take stock of what I do have. When I have a real loss, however, it’s clearly a regression.  

“We cannot give a rational explanation of why it is worse to lose something than not to gain it.”

Yes we can, or at least I think we can. Loss sets us up to see a regressive pattern, and imagine further regression. Not gaining pushes us to value what we have, and imagine stasis, a more preferable fate. 

“Can the disparity between our desires to satisfy our own desires (eat well) and to end the suffering of others (global starvation) be morally justfied? Of course not.”

Disagree. There is always a judgment of efficacy. We estimate our efficacy. We can do little to end global suffering, and much to increase our and friends pleasure.We all personally know abusers who don’t quit when we try to alleviate the conditions of the abused. Many social games occur inside systems so broken (education, government, unions) they are “no win.” This is similar to Psychic Numbing. It is adaptive to focus on the well being we know we can achieve and progress we can make — starting with ourselves and our loved ones.

“We are now poised to consciously engineer our further evolution, thus escaping evolutionary dynamics.”

Not so. Respectfully, this kind of language is I believe unaware of the limits of reason, which is one form of memetic evolution. We can’t escape evolutionary processes, no matter our level of development, if we live in an evolutionary developmental universe.

“Free will cannot be squared with our growing understanding of the physical world.”

Disagree. The will of all living organisms seems to be on a continuum of constraint. There are degrees of freedom, and the more conscious the organism, the more its will is free to follow the dictates of rationality, emotion, intuition, random chemical oscillators (see Martin Heisenberg’s work), or any other strategy it can see, chosen with some measure of proactivity, vs. reactive and unconscious thought or behavior. That sliver of thought or behavior that is conscious in any organism, at any moment in time, has some degree of choice to follow a range of decision rules available to its awareness. Less conscious and unconscious animals simply have far fewer of those choices.

“It seems clear that retribution rests upon a cognitive illusion of free will, and is thus also a moral illusion.”

Disagree. Conscious will is much freeer/more voluntary/choice rich, and to the extent a crime is more conscious, it is more immoral, and should be punished (and rehabilitated where possible) as such, whenever the social consequences would be better than no punishment (and rehabilitation). The utility of socially agreed and broadcast punishments for various crimes, the act of retribution/punishment for a committed crime, and rehabilitation, are all morally meaningful with more conscious, choice-capable human beings, and they are less morally meaningful (socially consequential) with psychopaths, mentally ill, substance-addicted, children, etc. In the latter cases we need other methods to deter crime than punishment or the threat of punishment, such as increased social transparency to identify and rehabilitate or monitor individuals who have less free will/choice/consciousness than the norm. 

Thoughts? Comments? Let me know, thanks.

The Moral Landscape – A Four Part Review (Part 2)

More thoughts on Sam Harris’s very insightful new book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, 2011. I am reading it with two friends.

Would you like to join us?  It would be great to have your comments as well. As we read, we are each identifying key statements we agree with, and statements where we disagree.

Chapter 1 follows:

The Moral Landscape, Chapter 1 – Moral Truth

Agreements (and my rewording/additions in italics):

Many moral truths have answers in principle, but their answers in practice may be much less than we would like, at present. Still we make progress in describing those answers, using science and evidence.

“The Catholic church is as misguided speaking about the moral peril of contraception as it would be speaking about the physics of the afterlife.”

I agree the Catholic church is misguided in extending its ancient framework to such modern issues as contraception, and we should challenge its views with evidence and argument from our own moral frames. But there may also be good health reasons for minimizing contraception and for reasonable levels of abstinence, the data aren’t clear. Even though they have many illogical and harmful features of their beliefs, including the focus on family growth without a concomitant focus on planetary sustainability, in many other, and older, areas of the human heart, Catholicism still has wisdom to impart. 

“The Taliban’s religious beliefs have created an environment that is hostile to human flourishing.”

Yes, but we can “divide and conquer,” or channel their extremism, rather than fight it head on. The Taliban deserve an ability to create their own semiautonomous states, as long as their local security doesn’t include military, they remain under national and international surveillance, and they allow free emigration and immigration by those in the state. Denying them this autonomy, as we do in our ignorance and assumed moral superiority, we unnecessarily create enemies. They deserve the freedom to conduct their own social experiments. Let them pour all their energies into that, rather than into insurgencies.

Science can resolve many questions about morality and human values, even as our understanding of well being and progress continues to develop.

Tolerance and social acceptance of moral states that we would not choose is not necessarily a greater moral value than intolerance. They both must be weighed for effect.

Whether you expect a net positive or negative improvement in well being or progress, and ideally both, should guide whether we tolerate or fight against a moral precept we don’t agree with, and how hard. Just as ethics are situational (dependent on environmental complexity and context), our ethics of conflict are situational.

While science in practice can be biased, racist, sexist, imperialist, etc, science as a method remains our most powerful, and uniquely privileged way of knowing.

We have three tasks: 1. To explain moral evolutionary variety, 2. To seek moral development (universality), 3. To convince others to improve their moral evolution and development.


“The burqua is not contextually legitimate in those countries that have it.”

Disagree. The burqua is a level of violence against women, and reduction of their freedoms, that is currently acceptable in some cultures. It won’t be in the future in those cultures, but it is today. We are free to not trade or to trade conditionally with those countries, to use argument and persuasion with them, and to infect them with inevitably increasing knowledge and digital connectivity. As we change their context, we will change the contextual legitimacy. We are also free to help those women who don’t want to wear the burqua to find clever ways to resist it, and to emigrate to those clearly more developed countries that don’t require it.

“Most educated, secular people believe there is no such thing as moral truth.”

I think most people believe moral truth exists, but they’d also agree it’s hard to get at, presently.

“I think we can know, through reason alone, that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value.”

Disagree. I think of consciousness as the white foam at the top of the powerful wave of connection-driven cognition, and the spike trains between those connections, that is the dominant process in our brains. Consciousness is not the action potentials, it is the fleeting synchronization of those potentials. We have consciousness only for minutes in a typical day. It is the connections and the action potentials that drive most of our thinking. Consciousness creates a narrative, and does post-hoc rationalizing of cognitive behavior. It is the icing on the cake of our mental complexity. Making a statement like you have made shows how easily “reason” misguides us. I don’t think you understand consciousness yet, or have integrated cognition sufficiently into your theory of well being, or into a theory of progress that I also think moral creatures must have. Buzsaki’s Rhythms of the Brian, 2006, is an excellent place to start. You will be much more impressed with cognition, and much less with consciousness, once you read this book.

“The concept of well being captures all that we can intelligibly value.”

Not so. Intelligent beings also value universal complexity and progress. Progress often happens in spite of us, and we may sacrifice our own well-being to advance progress, when we see a good reason to do so. Both Maslow and Victor Frankl talk of self-transcendence as an even higher developmental state than self-actualization, and sometimes it is.

“Morals, and science are not relative to the time and place in which they appear.”

Strongly disagree. They are both complexity dependent. Religion was our best science a millennium ago. Situational ethics are real. For example, wearing concealed guns in Colombia in the 1990’s, or in the US in the 1800’s Wild West, was morally justifiable. Today, unless it is a less-lethal weapon (eg, rubber bullets, Taser) it isn’t morally justifiable to wear a gun in most developed countries. It just adds too much unnecessary, unjustifiable violence to the environment. Required burquas are still justifiable in a few countries today, but in a generation, they’ll be history, victims of social development. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was justifiable as an interim measure, but in a society with gay marriages it is unjustifiable, etc.

“Everyone has an intuitive morality, but like our intuitive physics, it is usually wrong.”

Strongly disagree. In the former, not the latter, we have deep evolutionary experience. Don’t discount it!

“The Danish cartoonists [who created images of Mohammed] should not be blamed for the controversy they caused.”

Disagree. What they did was considered pornographic, to Muslims today. It is very similar if not equivalent to showing Jesus doing something pornographic in Christian societies. Social standards for pornography inevitably loosen over time, and should be regularly tested by freedom seekers, but if something remains pornographic, rules must be followed or there are consequences. Pornography is a minor moral transgression (crime), but it remains a transgression.

E. O. Wilson and Michael Ruse: “Our belief in morality is merely an adaptation to further our reproductive ends.”

Not so! It is also developmental, uncovering universal rules. (I think Harris agrees with this as well, though he doesn’t state it developmentally).

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