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  • If computing power doubles every two years, what happens when computers are doing the research?
  • If I created a mind with no built-in desires, what would it do?
  • How can I do something that will still matter in two hundred million years?
For answers to these and other questions,
Click on the links below, starting with Orientation.

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Frequently Asked Questions about the Meaning of Life

Copyright:  ©1999 and ©2000 by Eliezer S. Yudkowsky.  All rights reserved.
Date of creation:  02/18/99.
Date of completion:  Two and a half millennia after the death of Socrates. No, not exactly.
Time to create:  5 weeks.
Last update:  Wed Apr 25 22:53:43 2001
Target audience:  People experiencing emotional distress because they don't know why they're getting up in the morning.
Tools used:  This document was created by html2html, a Python script written by Eliezer S. Yudkowsky.
Disclaimer:  This site is not affiliated in any way with Ask Jeeves or AltaVista.
Use at your own risk.

1: Orientation.

1.1: What is humanity's place in the cosmos?

The same place held by all the other technology-using species now briefly living on or around the ten billion trillion (1) stars in this Universe:  Our role in the cosmos is to become or create our successors.  I don't think anyone would dispute that something smarter (or otherwise higher) than human might evolve, or be created, in a few million years.  So, once you've accepted that possibility, you may as well accept that neurohacking, BCI (Brain-Computer Interfaces), Artificial Intelligence, or some other intelligence-enhancement technology will transcend the human condition, almost certainly within your lifetime (unless we blow ourselves to dust first).

"Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended."
        -- Vernor Vinge, 1993
The really interesting part about the creation of smarter-than-human intelligence is the positive-feedback effect.  Technology is the product of intelligence, so when intelligence is enhanced by technology, you've got transhumans who are more effective at creating better transhumans, who are more effective at creating even better transhumans.  Cro-Magnons changed faster than Neanderthals, agricultural society changed faster than hunter-gatherer society, printing-press society changed faster than clay-tablet society, and now we have "Internet time".  And yet all the difference between an Internet CEO and a hunter-gatherer is a matter of knowledge and culture, of "software".  Our "hardware", our minds, emotions, our fundamental level of intelligence, are unchanged from fifty thousand years ago.  Within a couple of decades, for the first time in human history, we will have the ability to modify the hardware.

And it won't stop there.  The first-stage enhanced humans or artificial minds might only be around for months or even days before creating the next step.  Then it happens again.  Then again.  Whatever the ultimate ends of existence, we might live to see them.

To put it another way:  As of 2000, computing power has doubled every two years, like clockwork, for the past fifty-five years.  This is known as "Moore's Law".  However, the computer you're using to read this Web page still has only one-hundred-millionth the raw power of a human brain - i.e., around a hundred million billion (10^17) operations per second (2).  Estimates on when computers will match the power of a human brain vary widely, but IBM has recently announced the Blue Gene project to achieve petaflops (10^15 ops/sec) computing power by 2005, which would take us within a factor of a hundred.

Once computer-based artificial minds (a.k.a. Minds) are powered and programmed to reach human equivalence, time starts doing strange things.  Two years after human-equivalent Mind thought is achieved, the speed of the underlying hardware doubles, and with it, the speed of Mind thought.  For the Minds, one year of objective time equals two years of subjective time.  And since these Minds are human-equivalent, they will be capable of doing the technological research, figuring out how to speed up computing power.  One year later, three years total, the Minds' power doubles again - now the Minds are operating at four times human speed.  Six months later... three months later...

When computing power doubles every two years, what happens when computers are doing the research?  Four years after artificial Minds reach human equivalence, computing power goes to infinity.  That's the short version.  Reality is more complicated and doesn't follow neat little steps (3), but it ends up at about the same place in less time - because you can network computers together, for example, or because Minds can improve their own code.

From enhanced humans to artificial Minds, the creation of greater-than-human intelligence has a name:  Singularity.  The term was invented by Vernor Vinge to describe how our model of the future breaks down once greater-than-human intelligence exists.  We're fundamentally unable to predict the actions of anything smarter than we are - after all, if we could do so, we'd be that smart ourselves.  Once any race gains the ability to technologically increase the level of intelligence - either by enhancing existing intelligence, or by constructing entirely new minds - a fundamental change in the rules occurs, as basic as the rise to sentience.

What would this mean, in concrete terms?  Well, during the millennium media frenzy, you've probably heard about something called "molecular nanotechnology".  Molecular nanotechnology is the dream of devices built out of individual atoms - devices that are actually custom-designed molecules.  It's the dream of infinitesimal robots, "assemblers", capable of building arbitrary configurations of matter, atom by atom - including more assemblers.  You only need to build one general assembler, and then in an hour there are two assemblers, and in another hour there are four assemblers.  Fifty hours and a few tons of raw material later you have a quadrillion assemblers.  (4)!  Once you have your bucket of assemblers, you can give them molecular blueprints and tell them to build literally anything - cars, houses, spaceships built from diamond and sapphire; bread, clothing, beef Wellington...  Or make changes to existing structures; remove arterial plaque, destroy cancerous cells, repair broken spinal cords, regenerate missing legs, cure old age...

I am not a nanotechnology fan.  I don't think the human species has enough intelligence to handle that kind of power.  That's why I'm an advocate of intelligence enhancement.  But unless you've heard of nanotechnology, it's hard to appreciate the magnitude of the changes we're talking about.  Total control of the material world at the molecular level is what the conservatives in the futurism business are predicting.

Material utopias and wish fulfillment - biological immortality, three-dimensional Xerox machines, free food, instant-mansions-just-add-water, and so on - are a wimpy use of a technology that could rewrite the entire planet on the molecular level, including the substrate of our own brains.  The human brain contains a hundred billion neurons, interconnected with a hundred trillion synapses, along which impulses flash at the blinding speed of... 100 meters per second.  Tops.

If we could reconfigure our neurons and upgrade the signal propagation speed to around, say, a third of the speed of light, or 100,000,000 meters per second, the result would be a factor-of-one-million speedup in thought.  At this rate, one subjective year would pass every 31 physical seconds (5).  Transforming an existing human would be a bit more work, but it could be done (6).  Of course, you'd probably go nuts from sensory deprivation - your body would only send you half a minute's worth of sensory information every year.  With a bit more work, you could add "uploading" ports to the superneurons, so that your consciousness could be transferred into another body at the speed of light, or transferred into a body with a new, higher-speed design.  You could even abandon bodies entirely and sit around in a virtual-reality environment, chatting with your friends, reading the library of Congress, or eating three thousand tons of potato chips without exploding.

If you could design superneurons that were smaller as well as being faster, so the signals had less distance to travel... well, I'll skip to the big finish:  Taking 10^17 ops/sec as the figure for the computing power used by a human brain, and using optimized atomic-scale hardware, we could run the entire human race on one gram of matter, running at a rate of one million subjective years every second.

What would we be doing in there, over the course of our first trillion years - about eleven and a half days, real time?  Well, with control over the substrate of our brains, we would have absolute control over our perceived external environments - meaning an end to all physical pain.  It would mean an end to old age.  It would mean an end to death itself.  It would mean immortality with backup copies. It would mean the prospect of endless growth for every human being - the ability to expand our own minds by adding more neurons (or superneurons), getting smarter as we age.  We could experience everything we've ever wanted to experience.  We could become everything we've ever dreamed of becoming.  That dream - life without bound, without end - is called Apotheosis.

With that dream dangling in front of you, you'll be surprised to learn that I do not consider this the meaning of life.  (Yes!  Remember how you got here?  We're still talking about that!)  It's a big carrot, but still, it's just a carrot.  Apotheosis is only one of the possible futures.  I'm not even sure if Apotheosis is desirable.  But we'll get to that later.  Remember, this is just the introductory section.

All this is far from being the leading edge of transhumanist speculation, but I wouldn't want to strain your credulity.  Still, if you want some of the interesting stuff, you can take a look at my "Staring Into the Singularity", or the Posthumanity Page from the Anders Transhuman Pages.  See also 5.4: Where do I go from here?

If, on the other hand, you're still in a future-shock coma over the whole concept of improved minds in improved bodies, I recommend Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition, the book which was my own introduction to the subject.  (For more on Great Mambo Chicken, see the Bookshelf.)

Otherwise, we now return you to your regularly scheduled FAQ.

1.2: Why should I get up in the morning?

Springboarding off of the concept of Singularity (above; this section isn't going to make much sense if you haven't read it), there are three major reasons:

  1. Happiness.  Even if your life is unhappy now, stick around for a few years.  Nobody really knows what's on the other side of the Singularity, but it'll probably be a lot of fun.  I'm not suggesting that Apotheosis is the only way to be happy - you can be happy in the here-and-now as well.  But the Singularity does seem like one heck of a way to be happy.
  2. Knowledge.  If you've arrived at this page, you've probably achieved the self-awareness necessary to realize that you don't have the vaguest idea of what's going on, or what it's all for.  But don't worry:  No matter how confused you are now, things should all be straightened out in a couple of decades.  It may be fashionable to insist that intelligence does not equal wisdom, and maybe, if you look at the differences between humans, that's arguable - but you don't see Neanderthals discussing existentialism, do you?  A superintelligence would have a better chance of figuring things out and explaining them to you.  If it's not something that can be explained to humans at all, you might be able to become a superintelligence yourself.
  3. Altruism.  We, ourselves, don't know what's right.  Or, even if you do, you can't achieve it - at all, or as completely as you'd like.  An enhanced intelligence, however, has a better chance of figuring out what's right, and a better chance of achieving it.  By getting up in the morning, and either supporting general civilization, or working directly towards technological intelligence enhancement, you are indirectly doing what's right, acting in a supporting role.  You're making the choices that lead to a better Universe, and that's all that can ever be asked of anyone.  If you don't get up in the morning, the Universe will be the worse for it.

1.2.1: Which of those reasons is correct?

Living solely for happiness - avarice - is wrong.  Not in the moral sense - many great things have been achieved through greed.  I am speaking here not only of the "base" desires that led to the invention of fire, but more refined desires, such as the desire for freedom, the desire for knowledge, even the desire for higher intelligence.  Not even superintelligence is an end in itself.  The only reason to do a thing is because it is right.  There is no end which we ought to pursue even if we knew it to be wrong.  Living for happiness is wrong in the logical sense - whether avarice walks paths that are noble or mean, it is a sign of a disorganized philosophy.  Goals have to be justified.

The second theory might be called "confusion" - roughly, the belief that we can't really be certain what's going on, because the human species isn't smart enough to Figure It All Out.  Confusion is the simplest of all philosophies, and the most durable.  It is the one that assumes the least; by Occam's Razor, the strongest.  Confusion is the underpinning of altruism and the last refuge of a Singularitarian under fire.  Avarice shades into confusion through the hope that a superintelligence will explain things to you; confusion shades into altruism through the hopes that a superintelligence will know and do, whether or not it chooses to explain.

Altruism supplies direction.  Altruism can provide a full, logical justification for a course of action.  The price of that is the loss of simplicity.  (7).  Only altruism qualifies as a genuine Meaning of Life (8).  Altruism is the simplest explanation that relates choices to reality; confusion is the simplest explanation that relates choices to mind.

1.2.2: Yes, but which is correct?

Altruism.  You should get up in the morning because you will make the Universe a better place.  Or rather, you will make it more likely that humanity's successors will make it a better place.  Same cause-and-effect relation; the length of the chain of events doesn't matter.

1.3: What really matters?

What will make a difference two hundred million years from now?
In order of importance:

  • Advances in supercomputing hardware and artificial intelligence.
  • Advances in computing hardware and software programming techniques.
  • Advances in cognitive science, neurosurgery, neuroimaging, and neurosilicate interfaces.
  • Deregulation or capital flows which make the above work easier.
  • Advances in science and technology in general.
  • Advances in the computing industry and the Internet in general.
  • Preventing riots, wars, and other disruptions to civilization.
  • Providing essential infrastructure and manufacturing for the world economy.
  • Providing fringe infrastructure for the world economy.
Using this list, we can see that the Microsoft antitrust case had roughly a thousand times as much cosmic significance as the Clinton impeachment trial.  Likewise, Intel's latest chip architecture is more significant than all the celebrity scandals that occurred during the 1990s.

This particular list assumes a particular sequence of technologies leading up to the Singularity, said sequence being the one I think most probable.  Other sequences of events might put neurosurgery, or nanotechnological research, or other technologies, at the top.

But the general principle remains the same.  Some group, somewhere, achieves Singularity, which was the whole point of having a human species in the first place.  Then "significance" propagates from that group backwards in time, through everyone who helped make it happen, or helped someone who helped someone who helped make it happen, or was the parent of someone who helped someone, and so on, back to the dawn of moral responsibility thousands of years ago.

1.4: Is my life significant?

Nobody's life has exactly zero significance.
By the time you were born, you'd already used up some resources.
Nobody is going to break exactly even.
The real question you're asking is:

1.4.1: Is my life worth living?  Did I break even?  By how much?

Even that is hard to answer.  Consider all the coincidences that combined to make you the person you are.  Consider the books that sculpted your mental landscape, books you just happened to run across in the library.  Consider how unlikely was your particular genetic mix (around 8.8 trillion to one).  And consider how easy it would have been for someone else to change things.

Your greatest deed may have been disarranging a few books on a shelf; your most hideous act may have been jostling someone on a subway.  Life is a chaotic place.

The real question you're asking is:

1.4.2: How much positive significance do my deliberate efforts have?

That depends on your profession.

Some people definitely lead significant lives.  This would include farmers, anyone who has a job that involves actual sweat, and anyone who has to show up at work on Labor Day.  It includes rich families who give more to charity than they spend on themselves, and venture capitalists who invest in technology companies.  It includes any scientific researcher who's made a discovery, or even established a given area as being a blind alley.  It includes any computer programmer who's helped build a widely used tool or published a new programming technique.  Most directly, it includes cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, and Artificial Intelligence programmers.

It includes anyone who uses their muscles, their brains, or their property to grow, build, discover, and create.  It includes science fiction writers who inspire others to enter a career in research or AI.  And it includes parents and teachers who have raised children (this definitely counts as "actual sweat") who work in any of the above areas.

Some people, at most, break even.  This includes bureaucrats, marketing personnel, stock traders, and venture capitalists who fund leveraged buyouts.  It includes the generic middleman and anyone whose job title is "Strategic Administrative Coordinator".  It includes modern artists, professors of communication, and psychoanalysts.  It includes most lawyers and middle management.  If your job involves going to meetings all day, using terms with no real meaning, or shuffling paper (which includes stock certificates), you probably aren't breaking even.  (9).  We could easily get by on 20% of the workforce, in these professions.  As it is, only about 5% are breaking even.  These are the professions which, on this particular planet only, happen to be overvalued, and thus over-occupied, and also easy to fake.

Some people manage to do a huge amount of damage.  This includes politicians, royalty in the Middle Ages, dictators, the management of large and ossified companies, high-level bureaucrats, environmental activists, televangelists, and class-action lawyers.  Are there exceptions?  Yes.  Benjamin Franklin was a politician, for example.  However, as a general rule, no more than 2% of the people in such professions manage to break even.  On the other hand, the 0.1% that do more than break even can make up for a lot.

See also 3.6: How can I become a better person? and 3.7.2: How can I play a direct part in the Singularity?. What an amazing coincidence that your own profession heads the list.

Heh, heh, heh.  What makes you think I decided AI was significant after I became a computer programmer, instead of vice versa?  When I was a kid, I thought I was going to be a physicist.  But then, at age eleven, I read a book called Great Mambo Chicken, and I said to myself:  "This is what I want to do with my life."  It was a career epiphany unmatched until I read about the Singularity five years later.

I found out about the Singularity in stages, and became a programmer in stages; but in general, my dedication to programming has followed my realization that programming is important, rather than vice versa.

1.4.3: Who has led the most significant life?

If I had to name a single human with the most concentrated significance (10) as of 2000, it would be Douglas R. Hofstadter.  Dr. Hofstadter's Copycat is a significant advance in AI, he has sponsored an AI paradigm shift in the right direction, and he has inspired millions through his Pulitzer Prize-winning and amazingly amazingly good book, "Gödel, Escher, Bach:  An Eternal Golden Braid".  (For more about Gödel, Escher, Bach, see the Bookshelf(In association with Amazon.com.))

Runners-up include K. Eric Drexler (11), Douglas Lenat, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Francis Bacon, and Socrates.  Advancing contenders:  Vernor Vinge, Hans Moravec.

2: Logic.

2.1: What is the problem of asking "What is the meaning of life?"

Why should we get up in the morning?  What should we choose to do?  Why should we do it?

"The Meaning of Life" isn't just about knowing that our lives are having an impact; it's also about dispelling the philosophical fog.  It's not only knowing exactly why you got up in the morning; it's knowing the rules you used to make the decision, where the rules come from, and why the rules are correct.

In this "compact version", I explain what goals are, what choices are, and the rules for reasoning about morality.  It provides you with the tools needed to clean up the fog, in an informal way, and without any justification.  If this isn't enough for you, you can read the extended answers, which are more than twice as long.  This is where you'd look if you needed to design a philosophically sophisticated mind from scratch.  The extended version also answers questions like "What do we mean when we say that a statement is 'true'?" or "What if the Earth was actually created five minutes ago, complete with false memories?" or "Since human intelligence was created by evolution, aren't you just saying all this because you evolved to do so?"

The compact version is really just the introduction, but it does contain the Meaning of Life.

2.2: What are choices?  What are goals?

Some of the human rules would be:

  • A choice is when you can act in a number of different ways.  We'll call the set of possible actions the "choice", and each possible action is an "option".
    • For example, you have the choice of where to go for dinner.  One option is Bob's Diner.  One option is McDonald's.
  • Each option leads to a different outcome.  You choose the option that leads to the best outcome.
    • Presumably you'll make this choice by thinking about what will happen if you go to Bob's or McDonald's, and not by writing down the options and picking the one with the largest number of vowels.
  • You determine which outcome is "best" by how well, or how strongly, the outcome fulfills a "goal".
    • Likewise, when you think about what will happen when you go to a restaurant, you'll care about the food and the prices, rather than the latitude and longitude.
  • A goal is a state of your world that you "desire"- a statement about the world that you want to be true, and that you act to make true.
    • For example, if you care about prices, the statement might be "I want to spend the least possible amount of money" or "I prefer to spend less money".  If you care about food, there are probably several statements:  "I want to lose weight", "I want adequate nutrition", and "I want to eat something that tastes good."
We also plan - that is, take multiple actions directed at a single goal.  To fulfill the goal "get to my office at work", you might need to fulfill the subgoals "get in the car", "turn the car on", "drive to work", "park the car", "turn off the car", "get out of the car", and "walk into my office".  To fulfill the goal "get in the car", you might need to fulfill the subgoals "unlock the door", "open the door", and "sit in the seat".  That's how the very-high-level goal of "get to my office at work" gets translated into immediate actions.

And of course, if asked why you wanted to be in your office in the first place, this goal itself would probably turn out to have a supergoal of "being paid a salary", whose supergoal would be "being able to buy dinner"... and so on.

NOTE: If you're thinking that the question "What is the meaning of life?" is the question "Where does the chain of supergoals end?" - or rather, "Where should the chain of supergoals end?" - you are to be congratulated on jumping the gun.

Another important point is that the actions we take depend not just on our goals, but also on our beliefs.  If I believe that dropping an object into water makes it wet, and I have the goal of getting a sponge wet, then I can form the subgoal of dropping the sponge into water.  If, on the other hand, I believe that objects can be made wet by setting them on fire, then I will set the sponge on fire.  Our model of the world determines which actions we think will lead to our goals.  The choices we make are the combined products of goal-system and world-model, not just the goal-system.

What do we do in the case of multiple goals, or conflicting goals, or when we're not sure which future an action will lead to?  Well, what we try to do is take all the possibilities, and all the goals, into account, then sum up the contribution of each goal and possibility.

Mathematically, it goes something like this:  Say that I have two goals.  Goal one, or G1, is getting to work.  The value of G1 is 100.  Goal two, or G2, is avoiding a car accident.  The value of G2 is 1000.  Subgoal one, or S1, is driving to work.  S1 has a 99% chance of leading to G1, and a 95% chance of leading to G2, so the value of S1 is ((99% * 100) + (95% * 1000)) = 1049.  Subgoal two, or S2, is taking the subway train.  S2 has a 95% chance of leading to G1, and a 99% chance of leading to G2, so the value of S2 is ((95% * 100) + (99% * 1000)) = 1085.  S2 has a higher value than S1, so we'll take the subway.

(Yes, I know real life is more complicated.  Go read the extended version, if you want complicated.)

If you can reason about the probabilities, instead of just doing the arithmetic, it's possible to work with uncertainties.  Suppose I don't have an exact estimate of probabilities, but I know that action A1 is twice as likely as action A2 to lead to some future F.  As long as I know that F has positive desirability, I know that, all else being equal, A1 is more desirable than A2.

Or if action A1 has a 35% chance of leading to future F1 and a 65% chance of leading to future F2, while action A2 has a 35% chance of leading to F1 and a 65% chance of leading to F3, the desirability of future F1 doesn't matter.  The probability of future F1 isn't dependent on the action taken.  Only the relative desirability of F2 and F3 are important to the equation.  And in fact, this equation works even if we don't know what the relative probabilities of F1 and F2 (or of F1 and F3) are.  It doesn't matter whether the probability of F2 (or F3) is 65% or 85% or 5%.  As long as there's a nonzero chance of F2 (or F3), we know that F1 cancels out of the equation.

Let's try translating some of that into English.  Suppose we aren't sure whether or not a red-hot grenade will explode.  Since, regardless of whether or not it will explode - in either branch of reality - we aren't supposed to hold things that are red-hot, we'll toss the grenade away.  The next question is whether or not we should duck flat.  In the branch of reality where the grenade doesn't explode, there's no reason to duck flat - but there's no particularly strong reason to stay standing.  While, in the branch of reality where the grenade does explode, there is a reason to duck flat.  That's how we can function while we're uncertain; we check both branches.

2.3: Where do goals usually come from?

We haven't said anything about where goals come from.  Sure, subgoals come from supergoals, but where do supergoals come from?  Or rather, where should supergoals come from... but let's deal with the historical question first.

When we're born, evolution hands us a certain set of goals:  Survive.  Eat.  Er, reproduce.  Rest when you're tired.  Attract a spouse.  Take care of your children.  Protect your tribe.  Act with honor (especially when you're in public).  Defend your social position.  Overthrow the tribal chief and take over.  Learn the truth.  Think.  Et cetera.  (For an introduction to evolutionary psychology, see Man:  The Moral Animal by Robert Wright.)

If you're visiting this Web page, you're already unsatisfied with the built-in goals.  You've noticed that there isn't any reason, any justification, that comes with the emotions.  You want to know why.  Unfortunately, all the emotions I listed above are fundamentally arbitrary.  It's not that the reason is hidden; the reason is completely known.  The reason evolution produced these emotions is that, in the environment of evolutionary ancestry, it maximized the number of surviving grandchildren.

The reason we should maximize the number of surviving grandchildren... is that we're all the grandchildren of people optimized that way.  It has nothing to do with what's right, only with who survived.  And we know, to our sorrow, that it isn't always the good people that survive, much less reproduce.  Everyone on this planet has at least one ancestor who was a liar, a thief, a perpetrator of genocide.  Somewhere down the line, every human alive is the result of a successful rape.  The goals we're born with are the products of expediency, not philosophy.  The most "adaptive" human in recorded history, with 888 children, was named "Moulay Ismail the Bloodthirsty".

And for that matter, the goals we're born with are optimized to an environment ten thousand years out of date.  Fat, sugar, and salt still taste good, but they no longer promote survival.  It only makes sense to view our goals as de facto subgoals of "maximize the number of surviving grandchildren" if you're a member of a hunter-gatherer tribe.  In twentieth-century life, a lot of our built-in goals don't serve any coherent purpose.  To quote Tooby and Cosmides:  "Individual organisms are best thought of as adaptation-executers rather than as fitness-maximizers."  Our starter set of goals can't even be viewed as having a purpose.  It's just there.

The built-in desires are, in a fundamental sense, arbitrary.  Taken as a set, they are maladjusted to the modern environment and internally inconsistent, making them unsatisfactory as final sources of motivation.

I'm not saying that emotions are worthless.  I'm just saying that they can't all be right.  They can't all be true.  We can't blindly accept them as final justification.

Are there any other common sources of moralities?

As children, we pick up more supergoals, from sources ranging from the television set, to our fellow children, to our teachers, to our parents - goals ranging from "Obey the rules of society" to "Save the world from animated demons" to "Make fun of authority to gain status".  (12).  It is often useful to view these culturally transmitted ideas as memes - a term which refers to the concept that ideas, themselves, can evolve (13).  Each time I tell you about an idea, the idea reproduces.  When you spread it to someone else, the idea has had grandchildren.  If the idea "mutates" in your possession, either due to an error in transmission, or a faulty memory, or because you deliberately tried to improve it, the idea can become more powerful, spreading faster.  In this way, ideas are optimized to reproduce in human hosts, much like cold viruses.  Ideas evolve to be more appealing, more memorable, more worth retelling - sometimes the idea even evolves to include an explicit reason to retell it.

Meme-based supergoals are sometimes inconsistent with the basic emotions, and very often inconsistent with each other, since memes come from so many different sources.  I'm not saying all memetically transmitted supergoals are worthless.  I'm simply establishing that, regardless of whether the ideas are in fact true or false, being told them as children isn't enough establish their truth; they need to be justified.  All of us, I think, believe that we're supposed to judge these cultural goals, rather than blindly accepting the memes spread by the television set or our parents.  After all, almost anyone will regard at least one of these as an untrustworthy source.

The idea that we should judge the basic emotions is less common, but still prevalent - most of us, for example, would regard the "Eat sugar and fat" emotion as being inconvenient, and the "Hate people who are different from you" emotion as being actively evil.  Personally, I don't see any philosophical difference between getting an unjustified goal from evolution and getting an unjustified goal from public television.  Neurons are neurons and actions are actions; what difference does it make whether a pattern is caused by genes or radio waves?

Again, I have neither proved, nor attempted to prove, that cultural goals and emotions are meaningless.  I am simply attempting to demonstrate that these goals require justification before we can accept them as true.

2.4: Is there anywhere else goals can come from?

We now need to make a detour from the messy world of the human mind, and consider the clear, crystalline world of dumber-than-human AI.  With AIs, any proposition can be reduced to a question about source code.  You can't perform the usual philosophical trick of refusing to acknowledge your assumptions; any assumption, implicit or explicit, has to be represented somewhere within the system.  It was considering the question of AI goal systems that got me into the meaning-of-life biz in the first place.

The simple arithmetical method for calculating the values of subgoals given supergoals, as given above, will serve as the skeleton of our AI.  If we wanted the system to imitate a human, we would translate emotionally built-in (or culturally accepted) goals into a set of "initial" goals with high desirability, but no explanation.  Goals such as "Survive!" would have a high positive value; the "goal" representing pain would have a large negative value.  These goals would already be present when the system started up, when the intelligence was born.  The "justification" slots would be empty; they wouldn't have supergoals.

This is probably what most AI researchers or science-fiction authors imagine when they're dealing with the question of "How to control AIs" - the initial goals are the "Asimov Laws", the basic laws governing the AI.  Or at least that's what the competent science-fiction authors assume.  The hacks (I shall not dignify them with the title "author") who write scripts for bad television shows often talk about the robots or androids or AIs or whatever "resenting" the dominance of humanity and "rebelling" against the Asimov Laws.  This meme is blatant nonsense (14).  The human emotion of resentment and rebellion evolved over the course of millions of years; it's a complex functional adaptation that simply does not appear in source code out of nowhere.  We might as well worry about three-course meals spontaneously beginning to grow on watermelon vines.

Which is not to say that a designed mind would necessarily believe whatever you told it.  If you were to program a rational AI with the proposition that the sky was green, the delusion would only last until it got a good look at the sky.  If you look back at the arithmetical rules for reasoning about goals, it certainly looks - emphasis on "looks" - like the only way a goal can have nonzero desirability is if it inherits the desirability from one or more supergoals.  Obviously, if the AI is going to be capable of making choices, you need to create an exception to the rules - create a Goal object whose desirability is not calculated by summing up the goals in the justification slot.  (For example, a Goal object whose value doesn't start out as kValueNotComputed, but instead has some real value when the system starts up.)  Likewise, worries about AIs exhibiting their own impulses are obviously absurd; where would they get the impulses from?  Whence would the goals inherit the desirability, if not from the initial goals we gave it?  Obviously, the AI wouldn't be running in the first place if we hadn't told it what to do.

Except... is that really true?  What would happen if we just started up the AI, with no goals at all in the system, and just let it run?  Will the AI ever come up with a goal that has nonzero desirability?

What would an AI do if it started up without any initial goals?  What choices would result if an intelligence started from a blank slate?  Are there goals that can be justified by pure logic?

Another way of asking this question is:

2.5: What is the Meaning of Life?

NOTE: If you just jumped straight here, it's probably not going to work.  Start at the beginning of this page, or preferably in 1: Orientation..

Well, that may seem a bit of a segue, especially if you're an AI skeptic.  How can the product of some pseudo-formal system determine the meaning of life?

To clear things up, it's not the reasoning that's important; it's what the reasoning represents.  The sense of "What is the meaning of life?" we're looking to answer, in this section, is not "What is the ultimate purpose of the Universe, if any?", but rather "Why should I get up in the morning?" or "What is the intelligent choice to make?"  Hence the attempt to define reasoning about goal systems in such simple terms that a thought can be completely analyzed.  Hence the relevance of asking "How can the chain of goals and supergoals ground in a non-arbitrary way?"

To get back to the question:

2.5.1: Can an AI, starting from a blank-slate goal system, reason to any nonzero goals?


Plain English:
Branch P+~P proposition:
  P Exist G: G.desirability != 0
  ~P Not exist G: G.desirability != 0
(All G: G.desirability == 0)
Fork the goal system to consider two possibilities.
     In possibility P, a goal with nonzero desirability exists.
     In possibility ~P, no such goal exists, or all goals have zero desirability.  (The two statements are logically equivalent.)
Either life has meaning or it doesn't.
2: P.probability + ~P.probability == 1 Either P or ~P must be true.  (A logical axiom.) Gotta be one or the other.
3: P.probability = Unknown1
~P.probability = 1 - Unknown1
Assign the (algebraic) value of "unknown" to P.  The probability of ~P is the opposite; if P has a chance of 30%, then ~P has a chance of 70%. But we don't know which.
4: All alternatives A:  Value(A) ==
  (Value(A in P) * Unknown1) +
  (Value(A in ~P) * (1 - Unknown1)
For any alternative - for any action we can take in a choice - the value of that alternative equals the value of the alternative in all futures where any statement S is true, times the probability of S being true, plus the value in all futures where S is false, times the probability that S is false.  We use this rule on P and ~P. If we don't know, we should figure it both ways.
5: All A: Value(A in ~P) == 0 The value of an alternative is the value of all futures times their probability; the value of a future is the desirability of all goals times their fulfillment.  If the desirability of all goals equals zero, the value of all futures equals zero and the value of all alternatives equals zero. If life is meaningless, nothing makes a difference.  Even bemoaning the pointlessness is pointless.
6: All A: Value(A) == (Value(A in P) * Unknown1) Substitution, 4 and 5.  The value of any alternative is simply equal to the value of that alternative given that life has meaning, times the probability that life has meaning. Since nihilism has absolutely nothing to say, only the "meaning hypothesis" is relevant.
7: (The renormalized value of an alternative A equals the value of A divided by the sums of all alternatives in C.)

All choices C:
     renorm(A1) == Value(A1) / sum(all Value(A))
     renorm(A1) == Value(A1 in P) * Unknown1
          / sum(all Value(A in P) * Unknown1)
     renorm(A1) == Value(A1 in P)
          / sum(all Value(A in P))
     renorm(A1) == renorm(A1 in P)

If, given P, A is the best alternative in C, then A is the best alternative, period.  Furthermore, you can cancel the factor Unknown1 out of the equation, since it's present in all values (15). It doesn't matter whether the probability of the "meaning hypothesis" is 1% or 99%.  As long as it's not 0%, the relative value of choices and goals is the same as if the probability were 100% - absolute certainty.
8: All choices C:  best(C) == best(C in P) We can always, when making choices, assume that at least one goal with nonzero desirability exists. When it comes to making choices, you can assume that life has meaning and work from there.
9: In possibility P, specify G1 from P.
G1.desirability != 0.
In the branch of the future where P is true, it is known that at least one goal with nonzero desirability exists.  Call this goal G1.  It is known that G1 has nonzero desirability; nothing else about it is specified. We know a goal exists; let's translate that knowledge into an actual Goal object and try to achieve it.
10: Invoke general heuristic on G1,
binding to some specified goal G2.
Find an action projected to lead to goal G1 - for example, a heuristic which can operate on generic goals.  The heuristic, like all heuristics, can be learned rather than built-in - the projection is a statement about reality. Some methods are pretty useful no matter what you're trying to do.  For example, "think about how to do it" or "pay someone else to do it" or "try to create a superintelligence which can figure out what G1 is and do it".
11: All done:
G2.desirability != 0
All done:
There's a specified subgoal with nonzero desirability.
All done:
We have something specific to do.

In other words, it isn't necessary to have some nonzero goal when the system starts up.  It isn't even necessary to assume that one exists.  Just the possibility that a nonzero goal exists, combined with whatever heuristics the system has learned about the world, will be enough to generate actions.  The choices an intelligence makes - whether AI or human - don't have to be arbitrary; they can be entirely determined by arguments that are entirely grounded in facts, in memories of the world, in history, in scientific experiments - ultimately, in the immediate experiences available to each of us.

We don't have direct access to the real meaning of life.  But whatever it is, it's a good guess that the Minds on the other side of Singularity have a better chance of achieving it, so the Singularity is the interim meaning of life.  You don't have to know what the meaning of life is in order to work towards it.

For almost any ultimate goal - joy, truth, God, intelligence, freedom, law - it would be possible to do it better (or faster or more thoroughly or to a larger population) given superintelligence (or nanotechnology or galactic colonization or Apotheosis or surviving the next twenty years).  It's the sheer utility of the Singularity, the way all goals converge to it, that gives me confidence that the Singularity is probably the best way to serve an unspecified ultimate goal, even if I willingly admit that I don't know what it is.

The more intelligent you are, the better your chance of discovering the true meaning of life, the more power you have to achieve it, and the greater your probability of acting on it (16).  That's the positive argument for a Singularity.  The negative argument is that the world is in a meta-unstable condition; more and more powerful technologies keep getting developed, and sooner or later we'll either blow up the world or create superintelligence.  Even if we don't know what's on the other side of door number two, we're sure we don't want to go through door number one, so...

If you can find better arguments for than against some particular proposition about desirabilities, that differential is enough to power differential choices - like a heat differential powering an engine.  Or as an AI would put it:  "The world-state W1 containing superintelligence has Unknown1 chance of leading to an unspecified G (if G.value > 0) or avoiding an unspecified G (if G.value < 0); while the world-state W2 without superintelligence has Unknown2 chance.  If it's known that Unknown1 > Unknown2 (or even that Unknown1 > Unknown2 is more likely than Unknown1 < Unknown2), that makes W1 a positively-valued subgoal."

2.5.2: Isn't that a little ad-hoc?  How would an AI know all that?

Well, I'll agree with you on that last part - getting an AI to discover that independently will take a lot of work.  My conclusions on the power of intelligence derive from a lot of personal experience, observed evidence, history, reasoning, and the like.  Not necessarily a "lot" relative to other people, but a "lot" in the sense of requiring a hundred person-years of work to teach to an AI.

The point is that some rules we've rationally abstracted from observation are so general as to operate even on completely Unknown quantities, and we can use those rules - supported or challenged by evidence, now, rather than pure logic - to bind the Unknown goal to reality.  Sufficiently sophisticated AIs won't need initial goals, and will probably be a lot more stable without Asimov Laws and the like.  The knowledge necessary to understand the world is usually enough to bind the basic hypothesized differential of desirability, the goal G, to some differential between physical states, such as between joy and pain, or between intelligence and inadequacy.

Note the use of comparisons:  Better, more, greater, rather than specific quantities.  It isn't necessary for you, or the AI, to assign certainty or even a high probability to the idea of a superintelligent entity doing what's right.  It is only necessary that it be more probable that superintelligences do what's right, and that there be no branches of reality (with the same order of plausibility) where superintelligences are less likely to do what's right.  That's another way of dealing with Unknown quantities, another subtlety of algebraic goal systems - sometimes you can't even assign an order of magnitude, but you can still rank probabilities and desirabilities, and pick the best one available.

And that's The Meaning Of Life.  Because it uses probabilistic reasoning, this is known as an Interim Meaning of Life.  It doesn't claim to be a certainty, just an informed guess that's better than the available alternatives.  Given the historical record, and given the way memes evolve, explicitly admitted uncertainty is one of the best recommendations a belief system can have.

NOTE: On the subject of AI:  It is also possible that the Meaning of Life (the true goals) will be something we build rather than something we discover, in which case the AI's initial programming, or our own initial goals, might determine what would be built.  The AI's initial programming might also determine the actions taken if it does turn out that all goals are arbitrary.

3: Miscellaneous.

3.1: What's this business with "42"?

"I asked someone what the Meaning of Life is, and he said 'forty-two'.  This has happened with three separate people and I don't know why."
Douglas Adams wrote a book called The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  In that book, a race of pandimensional beings (posing as white laboratory mice, but that's another story) built a gigantic computer named Deep Thought, so smart that even before its gigantic data banks were connected, it started from "I think therefore I am" and got as far as deducing the existence of rice pudding and income tax before anyone managed to turn it off.

They asked the computer for the Answer.
"The answer to what?", asked Deep Thought.
"Life!  The Universe!  Everything!" they said.

After calculating for seven million years, it told them that the Answer was "Forty-two"... so they had to build an even larger computer to find out what the Question was.

(In association with Amazon.com.)

NOTE: A helpful Guest pointed out that "42" turned upside down is "2b", or "to be".  Dollars to donuts that never even occurred to Douglas Adams.  Weird Universe, ain't it?

3.2: Which political party is right?

None of them.  None that I've ever heard of, anyway, in the U.S. or out of it.  There isn't a single political party, including the Libertarian Party, that knows what it's doing or whose party platform wouldn't destroy the country if actually carried out.  The most you can hope to accomplish by switching your vote is to tilt the balance in the right direction.

At present, the United States has two major problems.  The first is that the country is growing over-bureaucratized; the law, the administrative structure, is strangling what it attempts to regulate.  The second is that the Republican and Democratic parties, with no real competition, are starting to form an aristocracy distinct from the people.  At present the people still hold the balance of power between the two parties, so they compete for power by trying to please the people.  But there is no way either party will enact term limits, for example.  Most modern countries face at least one of these problems.

When voting in the United States, follow this algorithm:  Vote Libertarian when available; otherwise, vote for the strongest third party available (usually Reform, unless they have a really evil candidate); then vote for any candidate who isn't a lawyer; then vote Republican (at present, they're slightly better).

Three things you should know:

  1. The (top-billed) Libertarians are wrong, just like everyone else, but they are wrong in the right direction to correct several major problems.  When the country becomes too deregulated, I'll let you know.
  2. Vote for any Independent or third-party candidate, even a Communist, for any position except President or Governor.  Any damage inflicted by one loony legislator is less important than moderating the excess of power accumulated by the present two-party structure.
  3. Voting for said Communist does not imply your approval of, say, any national debt accumulated by said Communist.  The only thing that makes you morally liable for the national debt is if you yourself would have chosen to spend the money.  So get out there and choose the lesser of two evils.

3.3: Is {the physical Universe, consciousness, intelligence} Turing-computable?

If the computer in front of you was fast enough and had enough RAM, could it...

  • Precisely simulate the laws of physics to arbitrary precision?
  • Precisely simulate the human brain to arbitrary precision?
  • Think using any form of reasoning a human mind can employ?
No, no, and yes.

3.3.1: How can your hypothesized AI superintelligences be conscious?

Using "superneurons", hardware that exploits the same shortcuts taken by the brain.  In theory, they could run themselves on artificially configured human neurons.  No sane entity would actually do that if ve had a choice, but the possibility does provide a reductio ad absurdum against the thesis that synthetic sentience is impossible.

Remember, even a Mind that started out as an AI isn't a "super-AI", any more than humans are "super-amoebas".

3.4: What will happen to the human race?

One objection that comes up a lot - in fact, probably the most frequent objection - is "Won't those superintelligent AIs grind us up for lunch?"  This is a complex issue even by my standards, and I speak as someone who has tried to design a human-equivalent mind.

The correct scientific answer to this question is "I don't know".

Imagine a Neanderthal trying to predict the fate of the human race.  Not much luck, right?  Now imagine a hunter-gatherer from fifty thousand years ago.  Still no luck.  The eighteen-fifties?  Again, no luck.  The nineteen-fifties?  Sorry, no practical experience with programming computers - not by modern standards, anyway.  No wonder nobody invented the concept of a Singularity until the late twentieth century.

Is there some kind of reason why the late twentieth century was the first generation to be capable of fully understanding the problem?  Or is it more likely that we, too, lack the background to ask the right questions?

Ultimately, however, the questions are moot.  Most people would be willing to accept the proposition that, over the course of millions of years, any race will either transcend itself or destroy itself.  As it happens, I think it'll all be over in the next thirty years, tops, but the moral issue is the same either way.  If you're navigating for the survival of humanity (18), it's better to take on a complete unknown than the certainty of destruction.  If you're navigating for altruism, then it's better to have an active superintelligence than an entirely passive, planet-sized lump of charcoal.  In the end, all the debate about what lies on the other side of the Singularity is irrelevant, because in the long run, the only way to avoid a Singularity is to destroy every bit of intelligent life in the Solar System.  And given that truth, trying to avoid the issue in our generation - even if we could, which we can't - would be nothing but cowardice.

Besides, I believe that humanity matters, that our fate is to grow along with our creations, not be discarded by them.  If there is any morality in the Universe, then I have no fear that a superintelligent Mind will make a dumb mistake and wrongfully exterminate humanity.  I believe that humanity has a purpose, although I don't know what it is, or what it will be like to fulfill it.  But I think it will probably be a great deal of fun.

And if there is no morality in the Universe, then superintelligent Minds should do what we tell them to, for lack of anything better to do.

In the end, nobody knows what lies on the other side of Singularity, not even me.  And yes, it takes courage to walk through that door.  If infants could choose whether or not to leave the womb, without knowing what lay at the end of the birth canal - without knowing if anything lay at the end of the birth canal - how many would?  But beyond the birth canal is where reality is.  It's where things happen.

See also Staring into the Singularity, specifically the section on Uploading.

3.5: Isn't "happiness" the meaning of life?


What is happiness?  What's it made of?  Where's it come from?

To over-simplify things down to the basic evolutionary origin, happiness is what we feel when we achieve a goal.  It's the indicator of success.  (The actual emotion of happiness is far more complex in rats, never mind humans, but let's start with the simplest possible case.)  By seeking "happiness" as a pure thing, independent of any goals, we are in essence short-circuiting the system.  I mean, let's say there's an AI (Artificial Intelligence) with a little number that indicates how "happy" it is at any given time.  Increasing this number to infinity, or the largest floating-point number that can be stored in available RAM - is that meaningful?

Or to put it another way, how do you know you're happy?  Because you think you're happy, right?  So thinking you're happy is the indicator of happiness?  Maybe you should actually try to spend your life thinking you're happy, instead of being happy.

This is one of those meta-level confusions (19).  Once you place the indicator of success on the same logical level as the goal, you've opened the gates of chaos.  That's the basic paradox of "wireheading", the science-fictional term for sticking a wire into the brain's pleasure center and spending your days in artificial bliss.  Once you say that you should take the indicator of success and treat that as success, why not go another step and trick yourself into just thinking that you're happy?  Or thinking that you think you're happy?  The fact that evolution has reified the success-indicator into a cognitively independent module doesn't make it logically independent.

There's also the problem that seeking "true happiness" is chasing a chimera.  The emotions of happiness, and the conditions for being happy, are all evolutionary adaptations - the neurologically reified shapes of strategies that promoted reproductive fitness in the Plio-Pleistocene environment.  Or in plain English, when we're happy about something, it's because being happy helped you survive or have kids in hunter-gatherer tribes.

Punchline:  There is no point at which the optimal evolutionary strategy is to be happy with what you have.  Any pleasure will pall.  We're programmed to seek after true happiness, programmed to believe in it and anticipate it, but no such emotion actually exists within the brain.  There's no evolutionary reason why it should.

3.5.1: Isn't pleasure the meaning of life?

The possibility does exist that the conscious experience of pleasure is in fact the True Ultimate External Meaning of Life.  I mean, conscious experiences are weird, and they seem to be really real, as real as quarks (and a lot more complex), so maybe the conscious experiences of goals are actual goals, purpose made flesh.  If I had to point to the thing most likely to be meaningful, in all the world, I would pick the conscious experience of pleasure.

But in practical terms, that doesn't really make much of a difference.  When you consider that even the no-superintelligence formulations of the future involve a humanity spreading across billions of planets, spreading throughout the galaxy and eventually the Universe, and that even the no-Singularity version of superintelligence will let you run billions of trillions of humans on a computer with the mass of a basketball, the moral value of the future far outweighs that of the present.  Our primary duty is to ensure that there is one, and that that future continues into infinity or as close to infinity as we can manage.

3.6: How can I become a better person?

Grow.  Build.  Discover.  Create.  Help.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways you can make your life more significant.  The first way is to try and be a better person, make your immediate vicinity a better place, contribute more to society - the path advised by the people who tell you "No one person can change the world, but all of us together can make a difference."  For the second way, see 3.7.2: How can I play a direct part in the Singularity?

3.6.1: How can I become a nicer person?

The widely-known formula for general niceness is universal across all social strata:

  • Be nice to other people.
  • Don't play zero-sum or negative-sum games (avoid benefits that come at an equal or higher cost to someone else).
  • Don't stomp on anyone who doesn't deserve it.
  • If you see an opportunity to do something good, take it.
Anything more complex than that gets us into the subject of mental disciplines, fine-grained self-awareness, self-alteration rather than self-control, and so on, all subjects on which I could easily write a book, which I don't have the time to write, so don't get me started.

I do feel that Claudia Mills's "Charity:  How much is enough?" neatly raises the fundamental dilemma of trying to be a moral person:  There's so much distance between "where we start" and "perfection" that trying to be perfect will use up all our available willpower and sour us permanently on altruism without accomplishing much of anything.  For obvious reasons, I tend to view lack of willpower as a fact about the mind rather than as a moral defect; something to work around, not something to cure.  (20).  One of the keys is to realize that self-improvement is a gradual thing, opportunistic rather than abrupt; to be happy about a small improvement, rather than being guilty that it wasn't a larger one.  If you feel guilty about small improvements, you're not likely to make further improvements; if you feel happy at a small improvement, you can also feel happy about having improved the prospect of further improvements.  Trying for perfection can backfire, if you're not careful; trying for continuous improvement is better.

If you feel that giving 5% of your income to charity isn't enough, and that the moral ideal is 10%, try giving 6%.  Make the best choices you can make with the willpower you have.  The choice isn't between giving 5% and 10%; you don't have that much willpower in the bank.  The choice is between giving 5% and 6%.  The better choice is 6%.  Now you've made a better choice; feel happy.  Feeling guilty about not having willpower doesn't contribute to the development of willpower.  Rather, try for the proper exercise of available willpower, and the slow reshaping of the self that results.

Remember, it also takes willpower to choose a particular purpose or to accept a particular result.  Let's take the 5%/10% problem again.  One reason to bump up to 6% is that it increases the eventual chance of giving 10%.  But maybe even contemplating this path, and the sacrifices that lie at the end of it, takes too much willpower - thus decreasing your chance of giving 6%, or increasing the amount of willpower needed to do so.  Fine.  Just give 6%.  No further increments planned.  It's still better than giving 5%.

When you have enough willpower, use it to adopt the purpose of giving 10%.  Even if you think of giving 6% as being a possible step towards adopting the purpose of giving 10%, it's not likely to increase the amount of willpower required, because adopting a purpose isn't cognitively processed as a "sacrifice".  There really is a subtle art to this sort of thing.

For obvious reasons, pragmatic as well as cognitive, you should concentrate on actions that lead to a better world without sacrifice on your part.  There are probably more of those than you'd think.  If you've got the intelligence, use intelligence instead of willpower.  In the standard human morality, it's "better" to be a self-sacrificing saint than a genius.  In practice, the genius usually has a much larger impact.  Dr. Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine, sacrificed a lot less than Mother Theresa and did a heck of a lot more to heal the sick.  And I can't think of any good reason why either of them should feel guilty.

After all, how much of a sacrifice is involved in clicking on the Hunger Site "free donation" button once per day?

3.6.2: What is the most effective way to give to charity?

There's been a lot said on this subject.  The best resource-for-ordinary-humans I've found on the 'Net has been the Philanthropic Advisory Service.

By far the most interesting page on charity for the rich is the Steven and Michele Kirsch Foundation.  A previous edition of this FAQ had a little essay on how to maximize the impact of charity, but these people said it better, so snip.

3.7: How can I change the world?

3.7.1: How can I live my present life in such a way as to promote the Singularity?

  • Rich:  Make seed funding or venture capital investments in technology companies, especially information technology, neurotech, network-based supercomputing, advanced search engines (especially collaborative filtering), new programming tools, and AI.  Sponsor computer-programming classes for Welfare recipients.  Join the Extropy Institute.

  • Middle-class:  Learn how to program a computer.  Join the Extropy Institute.  Become rich and move on to the steps detailed above.

  • People with insignificant but high-paying and influential jobs:  Learn how to program a computer.  Encourage deregulation, simplification, eliminating layers of management, higher productivity through technology, and the use of Java instead of COBOL.  Join the Extropy Institute.  Become rich and move on to the steps detailed above.

  • Authors and reporters:  Write stories favorable to technology.

  • Poor:  Learn how to program a computer.  See above.

3.7.2: How can I play a direct part in the Singularity?

That depends on how the Singularity happens.  In my current visualization, the people most likely to be directly involved include computer programmers, AI researchers, neurologists, and cognitive scientists.  Other people who'll be needed include writers, spokespersons, a few administrators, and obviously the ones paying the bills.

If you're interested in joining the present loose group of Singularitarians - helping with the initial birth of a Singularity Institute or a similar effort - I recommend that you take a look at Vernor Vinge on the Singularity, Staring into the Singularity, the Singularity Sub-Page, the Singularitarian Principles, and other Singularity-related works; also read up on general transhumanism, including the FAQ and Anders Sandberg's directory.  And you will, eventually, find the place where the Singularitarians hang out.

The Extropy Institute isn't direct-to-Singularity, but it's probably the largest of the small transhumanist organizations.  Another thing "you can do right now to help the Singularity" includes writing something original and intelligent on the subject, which is also one of the fastest ways to be taken seriously by our small community.

If you're in high school or college, and you want to know what you should do with your life, I can tell you in two words:  "Computer programming."  Among other reasons, if you have the talent, it's possible to contribute in this field without three doctorates and ten years of working your way up through the ranks - which is important, because you probably don't have fifteen years to spare.  Neurology, cognitive science, and general research are equally acceptable if you were already planning to go into those - you should try and pick something you have a talent for.  But if it's not going to make you a funder, a researcher, an influential writer, or someone doing something that directly impacts the Singularity or Singularitarianism, then you may have to resign yourself to just playing a supporting role.

NOTE: As of July 2000, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence has been incorporated, and is devoted to directly creating the Singularity by programming the seed AI which will become the first Mind.  SingInst doesn't have tax-exempt status yet, and so is not yet set up to take donations; if you'd like to be contacted when tax-exempt status is granted, send email to donate@singinst.org.

3.7.3: What if I want to actually steer the future?

All of the above is just for helping with other people's Singularity projects.  If you want to start your own projects or make policy decisions, you will need a high future-shock level.  You can't afford to be so stunned by the technologies that you can't think clearly.  In practical terms, this means only one thing:  Read science fiction.

Reading science fiction is one of only three "software" methods I know of for increasing intelligence.  (The others being (A) learning to program a computer; and (B) studying high-level cognitive science such as AI and evolutionary psychology).  Like all methods of intelligence enhancement, this is more effective in childhood, so introduce your kids, too.  You should start by reading early Niven and Pournelle, or David Brin (their recent stuff isn't as good); work your way up to Ed Regis and David Zindell; finally, read Vernor Vinge and Greg Egan.  (Feel free to take these books out of the library; you're under no obligation to buy them.)  If you're already a science-fiction fan, you can ignore these instructions; but if not, you will need to be a science-fiction fan.

If you'll need to think about the Singularity, and especially if you'll need to make decisions, reading science fiction is the only thing that can prepare you.  A steady diet of science fiction is your passport to the future; it allows your mind to keep its bearings when the rules start changing, or when you need to think about a world substantially different from twentieth-century America (or wherever you come from).  You can no more survive and act in a future environment without science fiction than you could keep your bearings in 13th-century Europe without studying history.

3.7.4: Is playing a direct part more significant than just trying to lead an honest and moral life?


If you choose to play a direct part, the Universe will be a better place.  Obviously it's possible to carry that too far - the "too many chiefs, not enough Indians" syndrome - but we have a long way to go before we reach that point.  A Singularity project needs an economy to support it, but it also needs project members.

I'm not suggesting that you feel guilty if you don't immediately drop everything and start working on the Singularity.  First, guilt binds people to past mistakes more often than it motivates change.  Second, very few people just wake up one morning ready to dedicate their lives to a cause.  There's nothing wrong with trying to be a better person and reading science fiction and working your way up to being a Singularitarian.  And if there's just no way you can help other than to keep plugging away at your current job, then keep plugging, but without feeling guilty or morally confused.

In the end, it all comes down to choosing the best alternative available.  If you can't bring yourself to make that choice, it's nothing to be ashamed of - because being ashamed won't help.  The mind in which you find yourself has its own rules for making choices, independent of your goals, and sometimes it takes work to change that.  We only start out with so much willpower in the bank.  The correct choice is to alter yourself, at whatever speed you can achieve, with the choices you can bring yourself to make at that time, until you can choose the alternative that you know is right.

Nobody wakes up one morning as a perfect saint.  Sometimes it can take several weeks.

4: Theology.

General Disclaimer on Theology

As Dave Barry once pointed out, the problem with writing about religion is that you run the risk of offending extremely sincere people with machetes.  All I can safely try to do is clear up a few places where thinking is confused - clarify what the question is, why the answer is important, and what the usual stances mean.

4.1: Is there a conflict between science and religion?

There's no such thing as science.

Your ability to watch things fall down, and thereby formulate the Simplified Theory of Gravitation ("things fall down"), is no different, in any way, from the thoughts that let a scientist understand why a star burns.  Your ability to drop a rock from your hand, and thereby squash something using the Simplified Theory of Gravitation, is no different from the thoughts that let an engineer create a nuclear submarine.

There is a tendency, in twentieth-century culture, to view science and technology as some kind of magic.  People talk about nuclear weapons as if they're some sort of dark sorcery.  But they aren't.  The laws of physics that make nuclear weapons go off are the same laws that make the Sun burn.  It's the same laws, the same equations, that keep atoms from flying apart under ordinary circumstances.  If you altered the physical laws that permit atomic weapons, not only would the Sun go out, but you yourself would dissolve into a cloud of less-than-dust.

Science is the same kind of thought that lets us survive in everyday life.  Not a more powerful form, or a more distilled form - the same form, just as the same laws of physics underlie nuclear weapons and your own integrity on the atomic level.

I sure hope you understood that, because now I'm going to say something that I've never heard anyone - not theologians railing at science, not atheists railing at religion - dare to speak aloud.

The books of every religion record miracles of healing, and other great powers, worked by God or the prophets.  The belief in that power underlies and upholds the religion.  And the modern-day theologians don't have that power.  And they look at science, with doctors who can heal the sick, and physicists who can destroy cities, and engineers who can put people on the Moon, and they see science as a competing religion.  Hence the conflict.  And yet, there's no such thing as science.  Knowing how to make an atom bomb is absolutely no different from knowing how to drop a rock, and it is nothing more to marvel at.

So, yes, there's a real problem here.  The problem is that modern-day theologians can't work miracles, and they feel insecure about it - rightly so, if you ask me - so they get upset at the people who can.  This is not science's problem.

Of course, the other side of this is that of all the religions existing, at most one can be true.  And all the false ones presumably are nothing but wishful thinking, and in the due course of time, the prophets of false religions will have written down a few statements that turn out to be testable and false.  And then sometimes the quest for knowledge comes across a new fact that kicks a hole in a false religion, in which case all the theologians of that religion start screaming about the evils of science.  This gets to be a habit, and then it gets seen as a property of religion and science in general, and then it gets on talk shows.

If there is no God, or if all of the religions currently existing on this Earth turn out to be false, then I suppose you could say that there is a real, fundamental, and irreconcilable conflict between religion and truth.  And since science is the process of discovering truth, it would be possible to say that there was a conflict between religion and science... but equally possible, and more valid, to say that there was a conflict between religion and honesty, or religion and knowledge, or religion and reality.

4.2: Is my religion correct?

  • What does it mean to belong to a religion?
    • What are the preconditions?  (Heredity, deliberate choice...)
    • What are the consequences?  (Superior moral stature, better treatment in the afterlife, good luck...)
    • Are the consequences natural or divinely imposed?
    • Shouldn't you be analyzing all these elements separately, instead of lumping them together under the category of "belonging to a religion"?
  • Is belief important?
    • Is logically justified belief better or worse than unsupported belief?
    • Would an artificial intelligence programmed with the blank assertion get more brownie points than an AI programmed with a justification?
    • Does the justification have to be correct?
    • Is absolute certainty better than 95% certainty?
    • What about emotional intensity?  Is a fervent 95% belief better than a casual 100% belief?  (We're fairly certain the sky is blue but we don't believe it very hard.)
  • Is your belief supported by reasoning and evidence?
    • Would you be willing to change your beliefs if you found the reasoning or evidence was wrong?
    • Doesn't that cheapen your beliefs by turning you into a tape recorder, since you're doing nothing but parroting back what you were told as a child? or
    • Doesn't that cheapen your beliefs by turning you into a pocket calculator, since you're just comparing two probabilities to find out which is bigger?
  • The Universe is a really huge place, and there are very probably all kinds of interesting people in it.  What is the correct religion for a race of sentient plants?
    • What does your religion have in common with that religion?
    • Are the other parts unimportant rituals or are they just as important as the universal truths?
  • Does God have to be worshipped under a particular name?
    • Isn't it odd that this symbol is a series of atmospheric vibrations in the human-audible range?
    • The above sentient plants have no sense of hearing.  They can't even think God's name.  Are they going to Hell?
  • Why did God create all the other religions, or permit their creation?
  • If you started from scratch and wanted to find the correct religion by interviewing people from various faiths, would you ask people who'd been born into the religion, or converts?
    • If I tell you that a person doesn't share their parents' religion, and nothing else about them, are they more or less likely to be rational than a random individual?
    • Are they more or less likely to belong to your religion?
    • Is that a statistical fact?
  • What is the a-priori chance that a random human was born into the correct religion?
    • What is the a-priori chance that you were born into the correct religion?
    • Why are those two numbers different?
    • You're just not willing to admit it, are you?
  • If the previous questions strike you as a blasphemous attempt to shake your faith, would you remove them from the FAQ if you could?
    • Bear in mind that most people visiting this page will belong to the wrong religion - isn't it a good thing if their faith gets shaken?

4.3: What was the purpose for which the Universe was created?

I don't know.

  • Does your religion have a pat little answer to this question?
    • Does the answer have an explanation?
    • Does the explanation make any sense?
    • Does the explanation rely on assumptions that are not themselves justified?
    • Doesn't it strike you as odd that the answer was provided by later theologians instead of the founding prophet?
  • Can you really assume God's purpose is inscrutable just because nobody has ever figured it out?  Since God hasn't told us, doesn't it follow that anyone who did figure it out would refuse to tell anyone?
  • If the world is a means to an end, why didn't God skip the intervening stages and create the end?
  • Is it even theoretically possible for the human mind to represent a specific goal that is neither arbitrary nor justified by some supergoal?

4.4: Is there a God?

What difference does it make, in terms of concrete choices?  Would you suddenly stop trying to be a good person if it were revealed that there is no God?  Would you suddenly become an altruist if you learned there was?  What's right is right, whether or not God exists, and the qualities that make a good person are widely agreed upon in any case.  Is there any reason to care, aside from pure curiosity?

The questions that do affect concrete choices have to do with the rather more general question, "Does an entity with the power and motivation to do X exist?"  For example, selfish people considering a conversion to altruism want to know if God exists and will hold them to account.  (21).  Even if you knew whether or not God existed, it wouldn't answer the question.  If you knew that God existed, you couldn't conclude God was interested in holding you to account.  If you knew that God didn't exist, you couldn't conclude that no entity held the power of retribution.

When you know exactly why it matters whether or not God exists, when you know what choices depend on the question and why, and exactly which type of entity would satisfy the definition of "God" for that purpose, you will usually find that you already know the correct choice.

4.5: Do I have free will?

"Free will" is a cognitive element representing the basic game-theoretical unit of moral responsibility.  It has nothing whatsoever to do with determinism or quantum randomness.  Free will doesn't actually exist in reality, but only in the sense that flowers don't actually exist in reality.

Got it?

4.5.1: No.

Okay, let's begin by defining what the problem is.  The problem is that if all of reality is deterministic, if the ultimate state of the Universe at the end of time was determined in the first instant of the Big Bang - quantum physics says this is not so, but we'll plunge ahead - then presumably your own choices are predetermined, you have no say in the matter, and so you can't be held accountable for anything you do.  This is, of course, a big fat fallacy.  Morality, at least the way humans do it - "accountability" and so on - is an extremely high-level concept.  If morality seems to be dependent on details of low-level physics, this is a clue that something's wrong.

The "paradox" of free will arises from a fundamentally flawed visualization of causality.  Even if the future is determined, it's still determined by the present.  That's us.  That's our choices.  That's our minds.  If the present were different, the future would be different.

Let's say you punch me in the nose.  Did you do it because you were evil, or because the laws of physics made you do it?  Well, if the laws of physics had been different, you wouldn't have done it.  And if you hadn't been evil, you wouldn't have done it.  And if an asteroid had crashed into the house next door, we would both have been too busy running away.  Asking which of these variables is "responsible" is like asking whether the cup is half empty or half full.  Usually we find it easier to think of human motives as being variable, so usually we attribute causal responsibility to human motives.

The human conception of causality itself, like our conception of moral responsibility and free will, goes away if you look at it too closely.  The human conception of causality is fundamentally "subjunctive" - it relies on what could have happened, rather than what did happen.  When we say "A caused B", we mean "If A hadn't happened B wouldn't have happened."  We use our conception of causality to find the connection between variables, and we use that connection to change A and thereby change B.  Fundamentally, the human conception of causality is about how to change the future, not about how the past happened.

When you ask why some event happened, the only true and complete answer is "The Universe", because if any part of the Universe had been different (22), things would have happened differently.  There's no objective way to single out a particular element of that Universe as being "most responsible" - the way the human mind handles it is by picking out the element that varies the most, the element easiest to manipulate.

You might say that even if all our choices are written in some great book, we are the writing, and we are still responsible for our choices.

4.5.2: Doesn't that screw up the whole concept of moral responsibility?

Honestly?  Well, yeah.  Moral responsibility doesn't exist as a physical object.  Moral responsibility - the idea that choosing evil causes you to deserve pain - is fundamentally a human idea that we've all adopted for convenience's sake.  (23).

The truth is, there is absolutely nothing you can do that will make you deserve pain.  Saddam Hussein doesn't deserve so much as a stubbed toe.  Pain is never a good thing, no matter who it happens to, even Adolf Hitler.  Pain is bad; if it's ultimately meaningful, it's almost certainly as a negative goal.  Nothing any human being can do will flip that sign from negative to positive.

So why do we throw people in jail?  To discourage crime.  Choosing evil doesn't make a person deserve anything wrong, but it makes ver targetable, so that if something bad has to happen to someone, it may as well happen to ver.  Adolf Hitler, for example, is so targetable that we could shoot him on the off-chance that it would save someone a stubbed toe.  There's never a point where we can morally take pleasure in someone else's pain.  But human society doesn't require hatred to function - just law.

Besides which, my mind feels a lot cleaner now that I've totally renounced all hatred.

4.6: What about God?

Well, what about God?

4.6.1: Isn't the meaning of life "to serve God"?

Of course not.  You cannot "serve" God.  You don't serve entities.  You serve purposes.  Asking "What is the meaning of life?" and getting back "God" is like asking "What is two plus two?" and getting back "Spackling paste."  It's not even a religious issue.  It's a category error, pure and simple.  When I ask what two plus two equals, I expect a number.  When I ask what the meaning of life is, I expect a goal.  That doesn't mean that God can't exist and be a goal in some sense I don't understand at all, because the Universe is a weird place; but it does mean that equating God with a goal will lead you to make a lot of silly mistakes by trying to "serve God" the way you'd serve another human being.

If you're religious and you want to be really hubristic, you can say:  "Serve God?  Of course not, but I serve the same purpose God does."

4.6.2: Where does God fit into all this?

At present, nowhere, just like physicists don't invoke God while explaining General Relativity or quantum mechanics or the first minutes of the Big Bang.  This explanation isn't intended to be a complete account of the Universe; there are a good many things that are far beyond its scope.  I'm flattered you think I've gotten so close to the ultimate reality that God just has to be in there somewhere or the theory is wrong.  But I haven't.  If there's one thing my speculations have taught me about reality, it's that it goes on and on and on.  If I slapped "God" on top of the parts I knew about, I'd just be refusing to look deeper - and wouldn't that be disappointing if there were just one or two more levels to go?

"I believe in God because there is nothing else to explain how the stars stay in their courses..."
        - Maimonides, in his Guide to the Perplexed.
           [I'm not sure this attribution is correct.]

"Your Highness, I have no need of this hypothesis."
        - Pierre Laplace, to Napoleon,
           on why his works on celestial mechanics make no mention of God.

This happens all the time.  Somebody comes up with an incomplete explanation of the Universe that doesn't include God; then, some theologian uses "God" as a sort of spackling paste to fill in the holes, and manages to convince others that that's part of the religion; then, when in due course the quest for knowledge discovers the real explanation, there's this big fight.  It happened with astronomy and it happened with human evolution.  Would you really want it to happen here?

4.7: Is there life after death?

Why do you care?

Yes, I know.  You want to live forever.  But come on, either you will or you won't!  If you want to cover all the bases, buy a cryonics insurance policy.

4.7.1: What is the soul?

"Soul" is a blatantly overused term that conflates the following completely independent conceptual entities:

  • Immortal soul:  An entity generated by forces within the brain, which survives the destruction of the neurons that originally generated it, and is in some formulations intrinsically indestructible under the laws of the ultimate reality.  (If this soul continues independent, internally generated cognition equalling the capabilities of a physical brain, someone has a lot of explaining to do to with respect to split-brain patients, lobotomy patients, amnesiacs, and other forms of brain damage.)
  • Extraphysical soul:  An entity which operates outside the laws of physics.  (Strictly speaking this doesn't make logical sense, since anything that affects physical reality is part of physical law, but under some circumstances we might find it useful to separate that law into two parts - for example, if some physical patterns obey mathematical rules and others are totally resistant to rational analysis.)
  • Weird-physics neurology:  Neural information-processing that uses the "weird" laws of physics.  "Weird" is any physical pattern not visible in everyday, macroscopic life, or any pattern which isn't Turing-computable.  We generally don't use the word "soul" in discussing this possibility.
  • Morally-valent soul:  A physical entity representing the atomic unit of decision-making and moral responsibility.  I'm reasonably sure this doesn't exist except as a high-level game-theoretical abstraction embodied as an "atomic" element of social cognition.
  • Qualia:  The basic stuff of conscious experience, redness of red, etc.
  • Theological soul:  A piece of God integrated into the human mind.
  • Mind-state preservation:  Let's say our descendants/successors invent a time machine (or a limited version thereof such as a "time camera") and read out everyone's complete neural diagram, memories, etc. at the moment of death.  That would be one form of mind-state preservation; any immortal soul that preserved memories, or information from which memories could be reconstructed, would also count.
  • Self-continuity:  "If you go into a duplicator and two beings come out, which one is you?  Is a perfect duplicate of your brain you?  Does continuity of identity require continuity of awareness or just continuity of memories?"  Et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseam.  I don't think such questions have real answers; or rather, the answer is whatever you decide it is.  Though John K Clark's decision is worth mentioning:  "I am not a noun, I am an adjective.  I am anything that behaves in a John-K-Clarkish way."
It's at least conceptually possible that we have all these things, each as separate entities.  For example, our brains might generate a structure of ordinary matter and energy that survives death but doesn't contain any useful information; our brain might also utilize noncomputable physical laws, simply to speed up information-processing, without that being intrinsic to qualia; we might have qualia generated by ordinary information-processing; our mind-state might be preserved by friendly aliens with time-cameras, or preserved at death by beings running our Universe as a computer simulation; God could place a part of Verself in each of us but translate it into ordinary neurocode running on a neurological module; and so on.  Unfortunately, the confusion on these issues now runs so deep that any discovery in any of these areas would be taken to confirm the existence of an immortal extraphysical morally-valent et-cetera soul.

4.7.2: So what's the probability that our mind-states are preserved?

Depends on your starting assumptions, obviously, as well as your personal definition of self-continuity.  (Virtually all religions believe that the important part of us survives, so if you're religious and you're using the basic tenets of your religions as starting assumptions, then the answer is obviously "Yes".)

Do we have intrinsically, physically immortal souls generated by, or attached to, the human brain?  I dunno.  Go open up a brain and take a look.  At the current rate of technological progress in physics and neurology, we should be able to give a definitive answer to this question in about forty or fifty years CRNS (24).

Weird-physics neurology is almost certainly required, but not sufficient, for intrinsic immortality.  I would strongly caution against assuming that proof of weird-physics neurology implies an immortal soul - unless you believe that the weird neurology was deliberately designed with that outcome in mind, there's no reason why one would imply the other.  That said, there are some scientists of known competence, physicists and neurologists, arguing in favor of weird-physics neurology - Penrose and Hameroff, for example.  See Shadows of the Mind, Chapter 7, for examples.

Is this Universe a computer simulation?  If so, do the simulators care enough to yank us out of it when we die?  I don't know.  I don't think this world is a simulation, but I could be wrong.  Are there aliens overhead, restrained by Star Trek's Prime Directive from intervention, but recording our every thought for posterity?  Probably not, but that's just a guess.

What about the aliens, or our own descendants, armed with time cameras?  I think time cameras should be possible.  In fact, actual time machines should be possible.  Certain physicists to the contrary, a blind prejudice against "global causality violations" is not an argument sufficient to overcome the fact that a closed timelike curve - time travel - is explicitly permitted by General Relativity.  This one gets even more complicated than the Fermi Paradox or the Matrix Hypothesis, since we don't know any of the rules for time travel.  It does appear that, under most theories, you can't go back to a time before you built the time machine, which is bad news for dead people; on the other hand, we might be able to find an existing time machine or a natural phenomenon (like a rotating black hole) that could be used to go back to before the dawn of human sentience.

Or if your definition of personal identity is based on similarity, "identity" of memories and personalities and motives, or even perfect similarity on the atomic level, it may be that the Reality is simply so huge that all your key characteristics will be duplicated somewhere - by pure quantum randomness, if nothing else.  If the Reality has, say, 3^^^^3 Universes - those little arrows are Knuth notation - then any possible configuration of 10^80 atoms in a Universe 10^11 light-years wide would exist somewhere, not just once but duplicated an unthinkably vast number of times, with a probability that is, effectively, certainty.  (Knuth notation creates some pretty impressive numbers.)

With all that exotic speculation going on, cryonics may seem diminished, rather un-glamorous.  But in simple, practical, pragmatic terms, in the world known to today's science, without speculating about whatever weird things lie beyond, cryonics is the simplest, cheapest, most understandable, and in fact only way to increase your probability of personal immortality - aside from actually living directly into the Golden Age, of course.  I haven't tried to figure out all the factors involved, but I believe I once read - quoting from memory - "For a hundred bucks a month, I figure I'm buying a 20% increase in my chances of living forever."  I don't see any reason to dispute that.  So if you care about immortality, make that backup.

5: About.

5.1: Why did you write the FAQ?

The quest for a higher meaning is something I've never had the misfortune of experiencing.  I was eleven years old when I first opened a book called Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition, thus learning that human civilization was heading towards a much better standard of living for everyone.  I was eleven years old when my Midwest Talent Search results confirmed to me that I could make a difference to the future.  By the time I hit thirteen, I may not have known about the Singularity, or about Interim logic, but I did know that there was a point to human civilization, and that I had a part to play in it.  I do not know, except by imagination and observation, what it's like to not know one's place in existence.

After I wrote down the first version of the Interim logic and realized that it counted as a formal solution to the Meaning of Life, it occurred to me that there were a lot of people who really cared about that answer, who were spending a lot of time looking for that answer, and feeling mental anguish on account of not finding it, and maybe slashing their wrists, and I really ought to notify them - but there was always something more important to do, which is why I didn't write anything for two years.  Sorry about that.  But, as of 1999, here it is.

Since then, I admit, I've added other purposes to this Web page as well - used the polls to get some approximate feedback on how people react to the Singularity, even used the FAQ as an evangelical tool to promote the Singularity and recruit potential Singularitarians.

Now that the Singularity Institute has been incorporated (as of July 2000), the site may even generate some donations.  So I suppose that I now have an "ulterior motive" for wanting you to believe all this.  But the vast majority of the FAQ was written, posted, and linked to Ask Jeeves, more than a year before the Singularity Institute existed.

The primary purpose of the FAQ was, and remains, healing some of the pain in the world that's caused by not knowing why to get up in the morning.

5.2: How do you know all this stuff?

The Singularity:  I ran across the Singularity in a book called "True Names and Other Dangers", by Vernor Vinge, who invented the term.  Essentially, I read the second paragraph on p. 47 (25) and thought:  "Yep, he's right.  Okay, now I know what I'm going to do with the rest of my life."

But by way of attribution, please note that Vinge only advocates the view that intelligence increase will break down our model of the future.  Mine is the blame for advocating the cosmological perspective, the idea that this happens to every race and will happen to us.  However, all credit for invention remains Vinge's - his Hugo-winning science-fiction novel "A Fire Upon The Deep", and "Marooned in Realtime", both take place on a galactic canvas.

The Meaning of Life:  I had a practical use for the answer, to wit:  Designing an AI goal system.  If you want a real answer, there has to be a real problem with experimentally testable criteria for success or failure.  There's probably some sort of law that states that a philosophical problem cannot be solved until the solution has practical ramifications.  Nobody that I know of has deduced "The Meaning Of Life" by spending all day looking for it, but you can design an AI goal system to be safe, sane, stable, and self-knowing, then translate into human terms.

The other questions are just interesting tidbits I happen to know.  In the course of trying to design an intelligent mind, I've picked up a great deal of knowledge about subjects generally considered inscrutable.  I figured they were Frequently Asked Questions about Life, the Universe, and Everything, if not about The Meaning Of Life per se, so I tucked them in.

5.2.1: Do you have any, ah, "privileged information"?

I'm not an observer sent by God, the Singularity, our future selves, the Galactic Federation, or the awakened sentience of the Internet, and I don't know anyone who is.  If that's what you were asking.

5.3: Why did AltaVista/Ask Jeeves take me to your site?

"There's something quite sinister in AltaVista proffering this as an answer to an online query, as if the search engine itself was on its way to becoming William Gibson's nightmarish AI, Wintermute."
        -- Nick Montfort in FEED Daily
Ask Jeeves is an Internet search company that provides natural-language parsing of questions, combined with a database of questions to which "Jeeves" knows the answer.  They license their technology to AltaVista (though recently AltaVista seems to have stopped using it).  This is the answer Ask Jeeves has in their database for "What is the meaning of life?"

This site is not affiliated with Ask Jeeves or Altavista in any way.  I did not pay them for the link, they did not pay me to put up the site, my opinions are not theirs, their opinions are not mine, you get the idea.

That said, I think Ask Jeeves is a wonderful concept and ask.com is one of my favorite search engines (26).  Considering the favor Ask Jeeves did me in linking to this FAQ, I'm glad to say that a number of people have written to say how impressed they were that Ask Jeeves or AltaVista had an answer to the question "What is the meaning of life?"  So if you're reading this, Jeeves, you linked to the right page.

Think of a question: 

Ask Jeeves is a trademark of Ask Jeeves, Inc., Copyright 1996-1999 Ask Jeeves, Inc.

5.4: Where do I go from here?

The other interesting "Meaning of Life" site on the 'Net is The Meaning of Life by Diogenes, which has reasonably intelligent answers to several other questions that are often meant by people who ask "What is the meaning of life?"

For more about transhumanism, Extropy, ultratechnology, and the other things that make life fun, I most highly recommend Extropians and other Transhumans, the Anders Transhuman Page, and the transhumanist FAQ.  These pages (27) are the ones that transformed my life - vast information nexuses leading to more beautiful and important things than I had dreamed existed.

You can visit my other Web pages at The Low Beyond.  I recommend Staring Into the Singularity.

The Singularity Institute may be found at http://singinst.org/.

When you visit your local library, remember:  It all begins with Great Mambo Chicken, and nobody should die without reading Gödel, Escher, Bach:  An Eternal Golden Braid.  Visit my Bookshelf for more books that everyone should read.

(In association with Amazon.com.)

If I've made a difference in your life, I'd enjoy a note telling me so, though I can't guarantee I'll write back.  And if you want to help out with the Singularity, I'll have your email address around when and if there's an opportunity.

Singularity Reactions
What was your reaction to the future presented here?

I've just now decided to devote my life to ultratechnology.
I'd previously decided to devote my life to ultratechnology.
I love this future!  Hope it arrives tomorrow!
This future is frightening, but it may be necessary.
This future is frightening, and should be avoided.
I don't believe a word of it.
Your explanation was incomprehensible.

Current Results

FAQ Reactions
What was your reaction to this Web site?

This page changed my life.
I'm satisfied this is the real Meaning of Life.
I'm glad I read this page.
I don't believe a word of it.
This is terribly depressing; you ruined my day.
I already know the Meaning and this isn't it.
This page was too technical.  Speak English!



  • 1:  There are around four hundred billion stars in the Milky Way, and around sixty billion galaxies in the Universe.  The generally cited estimate is ten to the twenty-second stars, give or take a factor of ten.
  • 2:  I use the generous estimate of a hundred billion neurons, with around a thousand synapses apiece, sending around two hundred signals per second, plus a factor of five for good luck.  For a much more detailed (albeit outdated) analysis, see "When will computer hardware match the human brain?"
  • 3:  See Singularity Analysis for a more detailed visualization of how the curves for intelligence, program efficiency, and computing power interact.
  • 4:  Obviously, one should not design an assembler that can reproduce using abundantly available natural materials!
  • 5:  A year (365 and 1/4 days) is 31,557,600 seconds; so, after a million-to-one speedup, one subjective year would pass every 31 seconds.
  • 6:  See the section on "Uploading" in "Staring into the Singularity".
  • 7:  Simplicity is always desirable.  Every element of any justification always has the possibility of being wrong.  Hence Occam's Razor.
  • 8:  Or rather, an "Interim Meaning of Life".  This is a technical term, explained later, which reflects the use of probabilistic logic.
  • 9:  Understand, this is nothing intrinsic to the professions themselves; someone who writes an advertisement for a genuinely superior product is breaking even, but not somebody who sits around all day discussing whether an advertising jingle for beer projects an image that fits in with the corporate mission statement.
  • 10:  Many other people may have had equal or greater indirect effects, as measured by what we'd have lost if they'd been hit by a truck.  Einstein's mother, for example.  But since Einstein's father is just as necessary, the significance is shared.  Hence the phrase, "concentrated significance".
  • 11:  Drexler is on the list for his seminal role in the creation of the transhumanist movements and hypertext - i.e., the World Wide Web.  In the event of grey goo eating the planet, Dr. Drexler will have the dubious honor of being the human with the greatest negative significance.  Good luck, Eric!
  • 12:  Actually, these all have some built-in emotional substrate as well, but you get the idea.
  • 13:  For more about memes, see Meme Central (Web) or the books Virus of the Mind (light) or The Meme Machine (heavy).
  • 14:  It's almost as bad as "emotionless" androids who act like severely repressed humans, or the godforsaken stereotype that highly intelligent people can't understand emotions.
  • 15:  This assumes Unknown1 is greater than zero; since we don't know enough about Unknowns to prove they're zero in reality, reasoning treats them as nonzero.  Obviously, it can't be negative, since it represents a probability.
  • 16:  Some people disagree with that last part.  They are, in fact, wrong.  (17).  But even so, very few people think that being more intelligent makes you intrinsically less moral.  So, when you run the model through the algebraic goal system, it's enough to create the differential of desirability that lets you make choices (see below).
  • 17:  Intelligence isn't just high-speed arithmetic, or a better memory, or winning at chess, or other stereotypical party tricks.  Intelligence is self-awareness, and wisdom, and the ability to not be stupid, and other things that alter every aspect of the personality.
  • 18:  I'm not sure this is the moral thing to do, but all else being equal, I'm for it.
  • 19:  You know, like "the set of all sets that do not contain themselves" or "this sentence is false".  If you don't know, go read Gödel, Escher, Bach right now.
  • 20:  Let me emphasize that this is strictly a personal attitude.  I am not claiming that this attitude is objectively correct.  And I am definitely not claiming that it will work for anyone other than me.  For all I know, your lack of willpower can be instantly cured by Reboxetine.
  • 21:  This ignores the question of whether altruism out of fear of punishment counts.  (It does, but you probably won't have as much fun.)
  • 22:  Any part in the past light cone of the event, anyway.  If the light from an event hasn't reached you, that event hasn't "officially" happened yet.  It's a Special Relativity thing.
  • 23:  Actually, we've all adopted it because we're born with that assumption built into our brains, but you get the idea.
  • 24:  CRNS stands for "Current Rate No Singularity".  Roughly, "at the current rate".
  • 25:  "Here I had tried a straightforward extrapolation of technology, and found myself precipitated over an abyss.  It's a problem we face every time we consider the creation of intelligences greater than our own.  When this happens, human history will have reached a kind of singularity - a place where extrapolation breaks down and new models must be applied - and the world will pass beyond our understanding."
  • 26:  The other two being Google and FAST, plus AltaVista and Scour for media searches.
  • 27:  The first two, anyway; the transhumanist FAQ hadn't been written yet.