Attractors and Values
Sun, 02 Feb 97 02:09:54 GMT

Not all interesting statements about the future need to be
specific. Suppose, for example, that we want to claim that
all advanced civilisations tend to approach some common
ideal state, but that we don't want to commit ourselves to
exactly what this state is. Well, why not define a
convergence thesis, saying that the possible civilisations
trajectories through configuration space tend to converge in
the positive time direction. This expresses an interesting
form of sociological/technological determinism (one that
doesn't have anything to do with physical determinism on the
As it stand, the convergence hypothesis is quite
unsatisfactory, however. It is instructive to think about
how we could begin to refine and sharpen it.
We could begin by clarifying what we mean by
"possible" civilisation. We could mean every civilisation
that is consistent with physical laws, excluding boundary
conditions; but something that is more restrictive might be
more fruitful. So we could say that the "possible"
civilisations are all possible civilisations that are
compatible with what we know about our civilisation; the
idea being that we are interested in what might happen to
the human civilisation and that we say something about that
by saying that all possible civilisations, which have all
properties we know that the human civilisation has, will all
share the same long term fate. We might then want to soften
this a bit by modifying it to "almost all of the reasonably
probable specifications of human civilisations (modulo our
knowledge) will share a similar long term fate". -Still very
much too vague, but a step in the right direction. We might
go on to decide how long the "long term" is supposed to be,
and who "we" shall be taken to refer to (you and me? the
intellectual elite? all living humans?), and how similar the
shared fates are supposed to be, etc. Needless to say, we
are not aiming at mathematical precision here, that would be
to shoot far above the goal.
An interesting variant is to extend the denotation of
the "possible civilisations" to include not only possible
civilisations that could turn out to be our but also other
possible civilisations that are sufficiently advanced. We
might want to say something like "Almost all civilisations,
once they have become sufficiently advanced, will become
even more advanced, and as they advance they will become
more and more similar in most important aspects.". Add a
little precision, and you would have formulated an
interesting proposition.
There are other flavours of the convergence thesis. We
might be interested in a thesis that says that all possible
civilisations into which we could transform our civilisation
will share a similar fate. (If that were true, we would be
powerless to change the world in the long run.) Here it is
very important to specify what we mean by "we". For example,
if "we" were all living humans, then we could easily
transform our society into one in which no crimes were
committed -and that might be a good idea-, but if "we"
refers to you and me, then we can't do that. (I find that
discussions about politics often suffer from a lack of
relativisation of policy to agents: what should you do? what
should your interest group do? what should your country do?
what should civilised educated people do? - it is hopeless
to try to work out a good policy in general; one can only
make a good policy for such and such agents in such and such
situations, (given such and such aims).)
One rival hypothesis would be the divergent track
hypothesis, according to which the future trajectories will
divide up into a small number (3 2) of diverging clusters,
the trajectories within each cluster tending to converge. It
is slightly misleading here to speak of converging
trajectories; what is meant is rather "routes of development
of civilisations tending toward the same goal-state". As an
illustration, take the following somewhat ludicrous story.
Some deep investigation reveals that in each possible
civilisation similar to ours in certain specified ways,
there will emerge either one or the other of two religions,
A and B, with roughly equal probability. These religions
will be such as to inspirit their adherents with such zeal,
cohesion and adaptability that they will eventually come to
dominate the culture in which they arise. Having obtained
local power, they will employ new technologies (drugs,
electrodes etc. etc. ) to cement their old strongholds and
to win converts from other groups as well. The stronger
these religions become, the better they are able to optimise
their strategy. Thus a positive feedback loop sets in and
soon leads to total domination on earth. Then the religions
embark on the project of transforming as much of cosmos as
they can into the structures on which they place most
values; perhaps they generate the cosmic equivalent of the
Tibetean prayer wheels, giant ultra-centrifuges rotating
trillions of inscriptions of "Gloria in excelsis Deo A" or
"Deo B" as the case might be. All civilisations in which one
of these religions emerges, will converge in some sense:
they will all lead to the rapid transformation of earth and
the gradual transformation of cosmos into the specific value
structures of the religion in question, although the timing
and precise execution may vary somewhat between different
possible civilisations.
In this case, one could say that the artefactual
configuration space of the universe (i.e. its configuration
with respect to its content of artefacts; two universes are
in the same artefactual state iff they contain identical
artefacts) will have two attractors: world dominion of
religion A or of religion B. Moreover, we could say that the
paths toward the attractor centre are quite uniform over all
realistic directions of approach. When this is the case, we
say that the artefactual configuration space contains
tracks, courses of development such that once a civilisation
has begun to travel along them, it is unlikely that it will
diverge from them barring major external event
We are now in a position to formulate and argue for
an interesting hypothesis about the future's topology: the
track hypothesis, saying that the artefactual configuration
space for all civilisations roughly comparable to present
human civilisation contains trenchant tracks in the future
direction, either one track or a small number of them.
The outlines of some fragments of the argument for
this claim (a full exposition would presumably require
book-length treatment) could begin to be drawn as follows.
As progress is made in science, technology, infrastructure,
economic structure etc., this will have the effect of making
us more effective. New technologies will increase our power;
augmented cognitive capacities (whether through >AI or
through mere extension of present systems such as science,
education, information technology etc.), will increase our
understanding of the consequences of using this power in
various ways. The result of this is that we will have
increased ability to make reality conform to our desires.
There is no reason why we shouldn't also be able to mould
our desires according to our higher-order desires. Thus, if
are only a few highest-level desires that are genuinely held
by large number of influential agents, then, it might be
argued, there are only a few attractors into which our
civilisation could sink, and if it could be established that
the approach to any of these attractors would tend to be
rather uniform over all realistic directions of approach,
then we would have found that our future-topology contains
so many tracks, and we would have made a case for the track
One could then go on to list some prima facie
plausible basic goals or values. (Basic ones, not values
such as playing golf, for those who value that activity
presumably does so because they think it is fun; but if,
e.g., they could have much more fun by having their reward
centres directly stimulated chemically or electronically,
without any ill side effects, then there is no reason to
suppose that they would insist on continuing the golf.) Here
are some out of the hat: (1) maximal total pleasure
(hedonism); (2) average of present human meta-desires
("humanism"); (3) maximal consciousness, pure consciousness,
religious experiences, wonderful deep experiences
("spiritualism"); (4) maximal reproduction ("Darwinism",
could this be argued for on Darwinistic grounds if several
competing value systems are present? -Hanson (1994)); (5)
maximal practical utility, such as safety, computational
power etc. ("pragmatism"); (6) annihilation, voluntary or
involuntary (nihilism). Involuntary annihilation is not a
value, but a very real possibility anyway; it's a plausible
candidate for being one of the tracks in our

Nicholas Bostrom